WASHINGTON - States should cut their threshold for drunken driving by nearly half- from .08 blood alcohol level to .05-matching a standard that has substantially reduced highway deaths in other countries, a federal safety board recommended Tuesday. That's about one drink for a woman weighing less than 120 pounds, two for a 160-pound man.
More than 100 countries have adopted the .05 alcohol content standard or lower, according to a report by the staff of the National Transportation Safety Board. In Europe, the share of traffic deaths attributable to drunken driving was reduced by more than half within 10 years after the standard was dropped, the report said.
NTSB officials said it wasn't their intention to prevent drivers from having a glass of wine with dinner, but they acknowledged that under a threshold as low as .05 the safest thing for people who have only one or two drinks is not to drive at all.
A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1 ounce of 80-proof alcohol in most studies.
Alcohol concentration levels as low as .01 have been associated with driving-related performance impairment, and levels as low as .05 have been associated with significantly increased risk of fatal crashes, the board said.
New approaches are needed to combat drunken driving, which claims the lives of about a third of the more than 30,000 people killed each year on U.S highways - a level of carnage that that has remained stubbornly consistent for the past decade and a half, the board said.
Local law enforcement divided on lower BAC
By DAVID ALEXANDER
A potential lowering of the legal blood alcohol content limit has mixed reviews from the two local law enforcement agencies that would handle any potential switch.
Marshalltown Police Chief Mike Tupper said he favors more stringent drunk and impaired driving laws, so he would favor the drop from .08 to .05.
"We lose way too many people each year to motor vehicle crashes where drunk driving was the proximal cause," Tupper said.
According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, drunk driving killed nearly 10,000 people in 2011.
Tupper compared the number of people killed in drunk driving collisions to those killed overseas in Afghanistan, saying that if that many people died in the war, the public would be outraged.
Although the transition would not likely be a smooth one should the state decide to enact the lower blood alcohol content, it would likely lead to fewer drunk driving deaths, Tupper said. It would be worth the time.
However, Marshall County Sheriff Ted Kamatchus sees the issue differently.
Kamatchus said he doesn't see the current blood alcohol content as an issue, and addressing mental health and substance abuse issues would be a more prudent use of the legislature's time.
"With all the things we have to deal with today in law enforcement, I don't see this as a major priority," he said.
Kamatchus said he would hate to see this issue "muddy the waters" for lawmakers when they could spend their time more productively.
Anyway, Kamatchus said, the amount of people his department stops that have blood alcohol contents between .05 and .08 are insignificant. His deputies need cause to pull over drivers, and he doubts that lowering the blood alcohol content will allow his deputies to suddenly catch a more significant number motorists driving drunk.
He said it seems more like a ploy to generate revenue for the state than to curb automobile collisions.
"Our goal is to get to zero deaths because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said. "Alcohol-impaired deaths are not accidents, they are crimes. They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will."
An alcohol concentration threshold of .05 is likely to meet strong resistance from states, said Jonathan Adkins, an official with the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices.
"It was very difficult to get .08 in most states so lowering it again won't be popular," Adkins said. "The focus in the states is on high (blood alcohol content) offenders as well as repeat offenders. We expect industry will also be very vocal about keeping the limit at .08."
Even safety groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and AAA declined Tuesday to endorse NTSB's call for a .05 threshold. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets national safety policy, stopped also short of endorsing the board's recommendation.
"NHTSA is always interested in reviewing new approaches that could reduce the number of drunk drivers on the road, and will work with any state that chooses to implement a .05 BAC law to gather further information on that approach," the safety administration said in a statement.