Drunk-Driving Limit Should Be Dropped from .08 to .05, Says NTSB
On May 14, 1988, a drunk driver going the wrong way on an interstate highway just outside Carrollton, Kentucky, collided head on with a school bus full of children. In total, 24 children and three adults were killed in this horrific accident, making it the most deadly alcohol-related automobile crash in U.S. history. In commemoration of the 25th anniversary of this tragic event, on May 14of this year the National Transportation Safety Board issued a new report urging all 50 states to lower the legal limit of intoxication for anyone operating a motor vehicle from .08 blood-alcohol content to .05, a standard that is already in place in about 100 other countries around the world.
Referring to the approximately 10,000 deaths that occur in the United States each year in alcohol-related automobile accidents as “a national epidemic,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman expressed her organization’s concern that the ongoing campaign to reduce drunken driving fatalities had reached a point of diminishing returns. The NTSB’s recommendation that blood-alcohol level restrictions for drivers be tightened is in accordance with the latest scientific findings, which show that a person with a BAC of .05 will experience “reduced coordination, reduced ability to track moving objects, difficulty steering, and reduced response to emergency driving situations” (quoted from a chart published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). The NTSB estimates that if this new standard were universally adopted, it could lead to a 10 percent annual decrease in the number of people killed by drunken drivers, and it is urging the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to offer financial incentives to any state that will agree to make the switch from .08 to .05.
Sensible Caution or Mindless Prohibition?
As recently as the early 1980s, people who had been drinking were legally allowed to get behind the wheel of an automobile in many states as long as their blood-alcohol content did not rise above .15. But in response to rising public and political awareness of the true costs of drunk driving, legal standards began to evolve and by 2004 all 50 states had adopted the far more stringent .08 standard that still reigns supreme today. Since the heyday of .15, annual casualties from alcohol-related automobile accidents have dropped from 20,000 per year to just under 10,000, but drunken driving still accounts for about one-third of all highway deaths in the United States, more than any other single factor. Over the years, legal penalties for driving under the influence have become more severe in concurrence with the tightening of the BAC, and bars, clubs, and restaurants by all accounts have become more responsible about serving alcohol to customers who may be intoxicated. Nevertheless, drunk driving has remained stubbornly and discouragingly prevalent, and its consequences have continued to leave a long trail of broken bodies lying in the wrecked and smoldering ruins of crashed automobiles each and every year.
Not surprisingly, the alcohol and hospitality industries have responded to the .05 recommendation negatively, calling it unnecessary, excessive, and bad for the economy. Others have pointed out that current laws already allow police officers to arrest drivers who appear intoxicated regardless of what their blood-alcohol levels might be, and they claim that the only people who will be taken into custody under these new restrictions will be those with BACs of .05 who show no actual signs of being impaired. Even some people involved in the fight against drunk driving have expressed skepticism about the idea of reducing the allowable BAC, believing that it will create a backlash that may ultimately hurt the anti-drunk driving cause by linking it to draconian laws that will not be popular with most people. Skeptics also argue that this new law would be all but unenforceable, since police would be expected to somehow know intuitively that drivers had reached the legal limit for intoxication and needed to be pulled over, even though in most cases their driving performances would appear to fall entirely within the range of normal.
The Power of Prevention
Some of these criticisms could very well prove to be legitimate, if the new standards are eventually adopted. However, government regulatory and safety agencies can only base their policies and recommendation for change on what the latest research shows, and in this case the science is clear: at .05 BAC the reflexes and perceptions of human beings are altered dramatically, and regardless of whether a person shows obvious signs of drunkenness, their ability to drive will be impaired if they have been drinking enough to reach this level of intoxification, thereby putting themselves, their passengers, and everyone else on the roadways at risk. While there may indeed be some backlash in the short-term against a move to .05, if there is any chance at all that such a move will discourage drinking and driving then this new proposal by the NTSB clearly has merit.
During the time when BAC driving requirements were being progressively tightened, from approximately 1980 through 2004, drunken driving-related casualty levels declined significantly and no one can reasonably argue that this is just a coincidence. Based on past precedent it appears very likely that these new recommendations will in fact be adopted at some point, and if and when that happens we can only hope that from then on fewer families will be forced to confront the premature loss of cherished loved ones as a result of a tragic—and entirely preventable—alcohol-fueled automobile crash.