WASHINGTON – States should cut their threshold for drunken driving by nearly half – from 0.08 blood alcohol level to 0.5 – matching a standard that has substantially reduced highway deaths in other countries, a U.S. safety board recommends. That’s about one drink for a woman who weighs less than 120 pounds, two for a 160-pound man, studies show.
More than 100 countries have adopted an alcohol content standard of 0.05 or lower, according to a report by 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 lowered, the report said.
In Wichita, there was mixed reaction Tuesday to the idea of lowering the threshold.
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 0.05, the safest thing for people who have 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.
Alcohol concentration levels as low as 0.01 have been associated with driving-related performance impairment, and levels as low as 0.05 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 that has remained consistent for the past decade and a half, the board said.
“Our goal is to get to zero deaths, because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable,” NTSB Chairwoman 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 0.05 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 0.08 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 0.08.”
Even safety groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and AAA declined Tuesday to endorse the NTSB’s call for a 0.05 threshold. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets national safety policy, stopped 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 0.05 BAC law to gather further information on that approach,” the safety administration said in a statement.
In Wichita, the head of the DUI Victim Center of Kansas supported a lower threshold. In an e-mail statement Tuesday, executive director Andrie Krahl wrote: “I agree that states should reduce the legal blood-alcohol threshold from 0.08 to 0.05, in order to increase accountability for those individuals willing to drive under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and hopefully decrease the number of deaths and injuries resulting from vehicular crimes committed by impaired drivers.”
Krahl said the “only difference between a moderate drinker behind the wheel of a car … and a dangerous drunk driver is the impending accident.” Krahl added that “most drunk drivers don’t realize how impaired they are, and nobody knows their exact blood-alcohol level.”
Two Wichita defense lawyers who handle DUI cases questioned the wisdom of such a move.
“Is the state prepared to take on the expense associated with a great influx of DUI arrests as a result, and will it cause a hardship on the state when resources … in the criminal justice system are already strained?” said attorney David Leon. He predicted that, especially in larger counties like Sedgwick, such a lower threshold “could double, triple, quadruple DUI arrests.”
DUIs are already costly for motorists, Leon said, adding that a DUI can cause a motorist to pay thousands of dollars more over the years in higher insurance rates. Going to trial on a DUI charge can cost $1,500 to $7,500 in attorney fees, he said.
Another Wichita lawyer, John Stang, questioned whether a 0.05 mark would increase safety much. Other actions while driving, such as cellphone use, can be more risky than drinking and driving, Stang said. The current standard of 0.08 “has worked pretty good,” he said.
Stang noted that the law already allows someone with less than a 0.08 alcohol reading to be charged with DUI as long as it can be argued that the lower level of alcohol content still makes the person incapable of driving safely.
Leon said he has had some clients charged with driving under the influence with blood-alcohol levels as low as 0.05. A lower level can make it harder for the prosecutor to prove that alcohol affected a motorist’s driving, Leon said.
The national board recommended the NHTSA-established “incentive grants” designed to encourage states to adopt the lower threshold.
A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has estimated that 7,082 deaths would have been prevented in 2010 if all drivers on the road had blood alcohol content below 0.08 percent.
The lower threshold was one of nearly 20 recommendations made by the board, including that states adopt measures to ensure more widespread use of alcohol ignition interlock devices. Those require a driver to breathe into a tube, much like the breathalyzers police ask suspected drunken drivers to use.
The board has previously recommended states require all convicted drunken drivers install the interlock devices in their vehicles as a condition to resume driving. Currently, 17 states and two California counties require all convicted drivers use the devices.
However, only about a quarter of drivers ordered to use the devices actually end up doing so, the board said. Drivers use a variety of ways to evade using the devices, including claiming they won’t drive at all or don’t own a vehicle and therefore don’t need the devices, the board said.
The board recommended the safety administration develop a program to encourage states to ensure all convicted drivers actually use the devices. The board also recommended that all suspected drunken drivers whose licenses are confiscated by police be required to install interlocks as a condition of getting their licenses reinstated, even though they haven’t yet been convicted of a crime.
Courts usually require drivers to pay for the devices, which cost about $50 to $100 plus a monthly fee of $50 to operate, staff members said.
The board has previously called on the safety administration and the auto industry to step up their research into technology for use in all vehicles that can detect whether a driver has elevated blood alcohol without the driver breathing into a tube or taking any other action. Drivers with elevated levels would be unable to start their cars.
But the technology is still years away.
Studies show that more than 4 million people a year in the U.S. drive while intoxicated, but about half of the intoxicated drivers stopped by police escape detection, the NTSB report said. The board also recommended expanded use of passive alcohol devices by police. The devices are often contained in flashlights or are shaped to look like cellphones that officers wear on their shirt pockets or belts. If an officer points the flashlight at a driver or the cellphone-like device comes in close proximity to an intoxicated driver, the devices will alert police who may not have had any other reason to suspect drunken driving.
The use of the devices currently is very limited, the report said.
Dramatic progress was made in the 1980s through the mid-1990s after the minimum drinking age was raised to 21 and the legally-allowable maximum level of drivers’ blood alcohol content was lowered to 0.08, the report said. Today, drunken driving claims nearly 10,000 lives a year, down from 21,000 in 1982. At that time, alcohol-related fatalities accounted for 48 percent of highway deaths.
The board made its recommendations on the 25th anniversary of one of the nation’s deadliest drunken driving accidents in Carrollton, Ky. A drunk driver drove his pickup on the wrong side of a highway, collided with a bus and killed 27 people, 24 of them children. The children were part of a church youth group on their way home after spending the day at an amusement park.
Contributing: Tim Potter of The Eagle