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Derek Monson: Facts support lowering blood alcohol limits
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Alcohol is a merciless killer. Every 53 minutes, alcohol-impaired driving kills someone on the roads in America, according to federal government data. Almost 10,000 lives lost unnecessarily each year. In 2011, 181 of these deaths were children under 14.

Controlling the production and use of alcoholic beverages saves innocent lives from such a tragic and premature end. These laws prevent traffic deaths by keeping impaired drivers off the road. They help safeguard innocent people from domestic violence and sexually transmitted diseases caused by alcohol-impaired decision making. And they protect the vulnerable and susceptible, such as children and recovering alcoholics, from the chains of alcohol abuse and addiction.

Yet despite all the benefits to society from alcohol control laws — grounded in common sense, sound research and clear-minded observation — some people still fight efforts to improve Utah's alcohol control laws.

Those who profit from looser liquor laws have come out screaming "NO!" in response to efforts to provide policy makers with research and facts regarding the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendation that states should lower the limit for blood alcohol content (BAC) — for all drivers — from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.

Alas, their objections to this proposed improvement are refuted by decades of sound research.

One of the liquor interests' objections is that moving from 0.08 to 0.05 BAC restricts "the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving." But 18 fatal car crashes between 2009 and 2011 in Utah involved drivers with BAC between 0.05 and 0.079, according to federal government data. I am disturbed that those who profit from drinking would support drinking and driving in any form.

One reason for these unnecessary deaths is that "virtually all drivers are impaired" at 0.05 BAC, according to a comprehensive review of the relevant peer-reviewed research.

Symptoms of impairment at 0.05 BAC include lack of coordination, difficulty in visually tracking moving objects, and slower response time in emergency situations. To drive impaired at 0.05 BAC is to put the lives of innocent people in danger, as the likelihood of being involved in a fatal crash is four to six times higher at 0.05 BAC, depending on the age of the driver, according to research.

Someone who chooses to drive while impaired at 0.05 BAC is not acting as a "responsible adult."

Another objection from the liquor interests against improving Utah's BAC standard is that it "does nothing to stop hardcore drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel." But according to research, it does.

A comprehensive review of the relevant peer-reviewed research found that changing the BAC standard from 0.10 to 0.08 in the 1980s and 1990s "significantly reduce[d] drinking drivers in fatal crashes at all BAC levels." More specifically, it "was associated with an 18 percent decrease in the proportion of fatal crashes with a fatally injured driver whose BAC was 0.15 or greater."

The BAC standard is a general deterrent to drunken driving. Lower it, and all drivers — including "hardcore drunk drivers" — get the message that they should not drink as much (and ideally not at all) if they're going to drive. In other words, the BAC standard works through self-government, not Big Government.

As Utah policymakers further scrutinize Utah's current BAC standard and proposals to improve it, those who stand to profit from looser alcohol laws will surely seek to downplay the costs to Utah families caused by drinking and driving, and they will throw their money around to influence politicians.

In the quest to defend their profits, they may — as tobacco companies did — turn to "scientists for hire" who question obvious facts and debate the sound conclusions from decades of credible research. They may even lower themselves to simply smearing credible sources that disagree with their position and seeking to marginalize their opponents.

But "facts are stubborn things," as John Adams famously said. And liquor profits notwithstanding, the facts are clear when it comes to this imperative: Protect innocent lives by improving Utah's BAC standard.

Derek Monson is director of public policy at Sutherland Institute.

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