Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Are U.S. drivers – and lawmakers – ready for a .05 blood alcohol limit or even more severe mandates?

The NTSB adopted 20 recommendations May 14 aimed at getting intoxicated drivers off the road and reducing the number of alcohol-related highway fatalities.  Among the recommendations is a lower threshold for the definition of intoxication.  The NTSB's recommendations carry a lot of weight, especially when Congress gets behind them by linking highway funding with the proposals as they did when the legal limit dropped from .10 to .08 in 2004 and in the 1980s when the drinking age was increased to 21.

Here's the report from, followed by a surprising response from Mothers Against Drunk Driving as well as some other observations on driving under the influence.

A hearing by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) May 14 produced ideas for reducing drinking and driving deaths, among the ideas, lowering the alcohol limit legal for driving. “Our goal is to get to zero deaths because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said. “They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will.”

Forty percent of U.S. highway deaths – or just under 9,900 lost lives – were attributable to driving while intoxicated in 2011, the most current year for which results are available.

The NTSB recommendation is based on results in other countries, 100 of which have limits below the .08 BAC limit in the U.S. In Germany, .05 is the limit, and 17 percent of traffic fatalities are alcohol related. In Australia, also at a .05 limit, 28 percent of motorists killed had a BAC over the limit. Fatal crashes decreased 18 percent in Australian states which lowered BAC limits from 0.08 to 0.05, despite having lower drinking ages and higher incidence of alcohol use disorders, such as the disease of alcoholism, than the U.S. Throughout much of Europe, the BAC limit also is .05 and alcohol-related traffic deaths were halved within 10 years of instituting the lower limit.

The Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices, says expect push back from states on lower legal limits to curb drunk driving. “It was very difficult to get .08 in most states so lowering it again won’t be popular,” Jonathan Adkins, an official with the states' group, says. “The focus in the states is on high content offenders as well as repeat offenders. We expect industry will also be very vocal about keeping the limit at .08.”

Drinking may seem to affect individual drivers in different ways, however, lab research indicates at 0.02 to 0.05 BAC, the ability to see or locate moving lights correctly is reduced as is reaction time and the ability to judge distance. Even if not obviously impaired, at 0.05 BAC drivers are twice as likely to have a crash as before they started drinking...At 0.08 BAC drivers are five times more likely to have a crash than before they started drinking. Over .08, the crash likelihood jumps to 10 times that of a sober driver. (See the article “What 53 feet means” for more on driver impairment.)

The lower BAC limit is among 20 recommendations in the "Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving" report adopted by the NTSB. Also on the table is a system of passive alcohol detectors in all motor vehicles proposed December 19, 2012. (See related article). The passive technology could be similar to fingerprint scanning presently used by some U.S. And U.K. companies to monitor employees in high-risk or high-profile positions.

The NTSB is an independent agency which studies traffic safety issues and makes recommendations for law changes or safety improvements, but has no-law making authority of its own.
-- from

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), an expected ally of the proposed lower limit, is not behind it, instead focusing on its own three-pronged agenda for reducing impaired driving.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also opposes the change to .05.  Republican leaders on Capitol Hill say, "Leave it to the states to decide." The beverage industry, naturally, called the proposal "ludicrous."

Where the rubber meets the road here is the question:  How far are we willing to go to save 10,000 lives?  If drinking and driving is the burning safety issue, there would be no push-back given other countries' experience with lower limits as well as ample research that proves "impairment" begins at .02.  That level is where Swedes set their legal limit for driving... and they rarely have an alcohol-related traffic fatality.

Rarely.  But they still have them.

Passive alcohol devices, as proposed in the 20-item NTSB platform, are something I mentioned three years ago in What the Early Worm Gets IF America really is serious about drinking and driving.  That's because...
... intoxicated driving deaths are 100 percent preventable with such a mandate.
NHTSA is behind it.  The Automotive Coalition for Transportation Safety is on board.  The U.S. mandated airbags in the name of saving lives.  The states mandated seatbelt use in the name of saving lives.  If we're interested in eliminating 10,000 entirely preventable deaths in the U.S., a passive detector mandate saves lives.  Lowering the limit still lets an impaired driver turn the key.