Safety board considers lowering limit for drunk driving to 0.05

New York Times News Service

Published: May 14, 2013 12:09PM
Updated: May 15, 2013 12:31PM
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Sheldon Killpack is subjected to a field sobriety test during his January DUI arrest in this still from dash cam video released by the Department of Public Safety.

Thousands of people are killed or injured every year by drivers who have been drinking but are not legally drunk and have a reduced ability to see, make decisions or operate a vehicle, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.

The board met to consider recommending that the states reduce the allowable blood-alcohol concentration by more than a third, to 0.05 percent from 0.08 percent, the national standard that was established a decade ago at the instigation of Congress.

The 0.05 percent standard is mostly focused on social and casual drinkers, but researchers hope it will reduce consumption among all drivers. Any recommendation made by the board would carry substantial influence.

Blood-alcohol concentration varies by body weight, gender, stomach contents and other factors, but generally speaking, a 180-pound man could consume four beers or glasses of wine in 90 minutes without reaching the current limit. At a limit of 0.05 percent, he could legally consume only three. A 130-pound woman could probably consume three drinks in 90 minutes and still be legal under the existing standard; if the limit were lowered, she could consume only two.

The board voted last year to recommend that anyone convicted of drunken driving be required to install a breathalyzer interlock in their car, which would prevent the vehicle from starting without an alcohol test, a strategy intended to combat repeat offenders. And the board favors research on built-in alcohol detectors for new cars, which could measure blood-alcohol content through a driver’s palms on the steering wheel or some other unobtrusive way.

Those could be available as an option on new cars or could be universally required. Either would affect drinkers who have never been caught driving, who make up more than 90 percent of those involved in fatal crashes that are related to alcohol.

People with a blood-alcohol level of 0.05 percent are 38 percent more likely to be involved in a crash than those who have not been drinking, according to government statistics. People with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent are 169 percent more likely.

The standard in most of the industrialized world is 0.05 percent. All 50 states and the District of Columbia switched to 0.08 percent after President Bill Clinton signed a law in 2000 that withheld highway construction money from states that did not agree to that standard.

In Utah, Sen. John Valentine, who spearheads liquor legislation, said he is studying the report to determine whether he will file a bill to reduce the blood alcohol content to .05.

Valentine said it appears that in Europe some nations have reduced fatalities from drunk driving by having that legal limit.

“I’m still in the investigation state,” he said during a legislative hearing at the Capitol. “But this is obviously something we should be looking at.”

The rate of deaths from crashes where the driver is found to be legally drunk is about 30 percent of all fatalities today, down from about 50 percent when President Ronald Reagan first raised the issue as a national concern in 1982. (The number of deaths is down to about 10,000 a year from 21,000 over the same period.) Highway deaths are decreasing overall because of better designed cars, seat belt use and better highways.

“We like to think of ourselves as on the leading edge of automotive safety, but when it comes to impaired driving and blood-alcohol concentration, we’re behind the rest of the world,” said Robert Molloy, an expert in the transportation board’s Office of Highway Safety.

The lower blood-alcohol recommendation would most likely face opposition from distillers, brewers, vintners, bars and restaurants, which could face a substantial loss of business.

Sarah Longwell, the managing director at the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association, called the idea “ludicrous.”

“Moving from .08 to .05 would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior,” she said. And “further restriction of moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to stop hard-core drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel.”

If the board moves ahead, it will have the support of other advocates, but not Mothers Against Drunk Driving. That group said it favored many parts of the board’s agenda, including mandatory installation of the breathalyzer interlock for anyone convicted of driving drunk, research on the passive alcohol sensors and “administrative license revocation,” which gives police officers on the highway the authority to seize a driver’s license at the time of an arrest. Those show strong potential for reducing the death toll, said J.T. Griffin, a Washington representative of the group.

The discussion of changing the definition of drunk, he said, was the safety board “trying to focus on a group of people who are more social drinkers, who haven’t been targeted in a while.” MADD would not oppose the change, he said, but would pursue other remedies.

The 0.08 percent limit is one legal standard under which a driver can be convicted of driving under the influence and constitutes “per se” inebriation. Without a test, or even with a test with a lower result, a driver could still be convicted on the basis of other evidence, including the observations of a police officer and the results of a field sobriety test. But such convictions are rare.

Two states, Colorado and New York, already have a category of milder penalties for people with blood-alcohol levels between 0.05 percent and 0.08 percent.