Federal accident investigators are recommending that states cut their threshold for drunken driving by nearly half, matching a standard that has substantially reduced highway deaths in other countries.
The National Transportation Safety Board said states should shrink the standard from the current .08 blood alcohol content to .05 as part of a series of recommendations aimed at reducing alcohol-related highway deaths. More than 100 countries have adopted the .05 alcohol content standard or lower. 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.
Currently, all 50 states have set a BAC level of .08, reflecting the percentage of alcohol, by volume, in the blood. If a driver is found to have a BAC level of .08 or above, he or she is subject to arrest and prosecution.
The recommendation to drop the legal limit down to .05 is prompting immediate criticism from restaurant trade groups. Many feel that further restricting the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to eliminate hardcore drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel.
The United States, Canada and Iraq are among a small handful of countries that have set the BAC level at .08. Most countries in Europe, including Russia, most of South America and Australia, have set BAC levels at .05 to constitute drunken driving.
The NTSB reports that at .05 BAC, some drivers begin having difficulties with depth perception and other visual functions. At .07, cognitive abilities become impaired. At .05 BAC, the risk of having an accident increases by 39 percent. At .08 BAC, the risk of having an accident increases by more than 100 percent.
While many may believe this proposal criminalizes otherwise responsible behavior, the fact remains that drunken driving is one of the biggest killers in the United States. Each year, nearly 10,000 people die in alcohol-related traffic accidents and 170,000 are injured. Though that’s a big improvement from the 20,000 who died in alcohol-related accidents 30 years ago, it remains a consistent threat to public safety.
The NTSB is an investigative agency that advocates on behalf of safety issues. It has no legal authority to order any change to state or federal law. It would be up to individual states whether to accept the NTSB’s recommendation, and up to the Department of Transportation whether to endorse the recommendations. The last move from .10 to .08 BAC levels took 21 years for each state to implement.
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