May 15, 2013

Call for lower OUI limit raises concerns in Maine

Regulators say a 0.05% threshold would save lives, but others predict fairness and enforcement issues.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Federal regulators recommended Tuesday that all states lower the blood-alcohol threshold for drunken driving from 0.08 to 0.05 percent, a proposal that was met with some skepticism in the hospitality industry and elsewhere in Maine.

Today's poll: Blood-alcohol testing

Should states reduce the legal blood-alcohol standard for drunken driving to .05, rather than the current .08?

Yes

No

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click image to enlarge

OUI incidents like this one in 2012 in Scarborough could be more frequent if communities adopt a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation to lower the drunk driving threshold to .05 percent blood-alcohol content.

Derek Davis/2012 Press Herald file

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HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?

• A 140-pound woman that has one drink in an hour will on average have a blood alcohol content of 0.04 percent. Two drinks in an hour will result in a blood alcohol content of 0.07 percent.

• A 180-pound man would have a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent after two drinks in an hour.

• People generally metabolize one drink's worth of alcohol each hour, meaning adding one drink each hour should not significantly change a person's blood alcohol content.

• One drink is considered 1.5 ounces of 80 proof spirits, 5 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer.

Source: brad21.org (Be Responsible About Drinking)

 

To find a calculator to estimate blood alcohol content, go to:

www.ou.edu/oupd/bac.htm

The National Transportation Safety Board cited the continued high price of drunken driving, with 10,000 people on average dying every year and 173,000 injured in alcohol-involved crashes. The independent federal agency estimates that every day, 300,000 people get behind the wheel when they are impaired.

The NTSB said studies have shown that most drivers' judgment and visual functions are impaired when their blood alcohol content is just 0.05 percent and they are more likely to be involved in crashes.

"Alcohol-impaired crashes are not accidents," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in announcing the initiative. "They are crimes. They can -- and should -- be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will."

The NTSB made 10 recommendations, including that states require ignition locks to prevent people convicted of drunken driving from using their cars when drunk, and increasing high-visibility enforcement such as roadblocks.

But setting the limit so low, where the impact of alcohol is barely perceptible, could leave patrons unsure of whether they can have a glass of wine with dinner if they plan on driving home, said Dick Grotton, president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association.

"It's an effort to prevent people from consuming alcohol altogether," Grotton said. He thinks the decision was made without input from industries and people that might be affected by it.

Grotton said he believes there is virtually no impairment for most people at 0.05 percent, and that would leave police in a quandary about enforcing the law.Grotton expects it would be enforced primarily after there is a crash.

He also noted it would affect the hospitality and restaurant industry if people go out less.

Matthew Nichols of Portland, a criminal defense attorney who specializes in drunken driving cases, said he is not surprised by the recommendation but "they will be locking up a lot of innocent people."

Nichols said he is familiar with the research that says some drivers start to be impaired at 0.05 percent blood alcohol. But there also are many drivers who could have the same level yet feel no effects, he said.

The rationale behind having set blood alcohol thresholds is to guard against people who may be able to mask the effects of alcohol, but whose reaction time might be slowed in an emergency, such as a child running into the street, Nichols said.

"It's going to be a real challenge for law enforcement officers to make an arrest decision," he said. "They've been trained for years to kind of gear these things toward .08. Now, if I'm a cop and a guy has a couple microbrews with high alcohol and he's probably a .05, but he's going to look fine to me, do I really want to arrest this guy? Is he really a danger on the road?"

Nichols believes a 0.05 level would require blood tests instead of breath tests to remove some of the small deviations that can occur between alcohol on the breath and in the blood.

Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said his organization has not analyzed the effect of lowering the drunken driving threshold because few states track those data.

"Crash risk is higher for drivers well-below .08" than for drivers who have not been drinking, Rader said. "We would expect some effect if states lowered the blood alcohol content threshold to .05, but that's difficult to quantify or estimate because no state has taken that step.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Blood-alcohol testing

Should states reduce the legal blood-alcohol standard for drunken driving to .05, rather than the current .08?

Yes

No

View Results