Saturday, June 1, 2013

Problems Raised By NTSB Blood Alcohol Recommendation

The National Transportation Safety Board recently issued a new recommendation that asks all states to agree to lower the legal threshold for impairment for driving from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent. The move was greeted with cheers from some alcohol awareness groups, but others have raised concerns about the impact of such a move, raising doubts about whether such a proposal could ever succeed.

The first issue that arose to challenge the new regulation was a surprisingly cool embrace from one of the organizations that many believed would be the biggest champion of the proposal. Rather than issue a press release trumpeting the news, Mothers Against Drunk Driving said only that the organization was “neutral” when it came to the BAC proposal. Many were surprised at the shrug from MADD, which has for years advocated for stronger DUI enforcement efforts. The group says the reason for its lack of interest in the new regulation is that it targets the wrong group of drivers, which leads to yet another problem of the new NTSB proposal.

The way the new recommendation is structured it is designed to target social drinkers, not abusive users of alcohol. MADD and others have suggested that such legislation amounts to a waste of energy given that this group of drivers is responsible for a very small percentage of all alcohol-related traffic accidents.

Opponents to the measure have pointed to research which clearly shows that the average BAC for a person involved in a fatal accident is 0.17 percent, triple the level that the new proposal would target. MADD says that to expend so much police time chasing down drivers who pose very little threat to other motorists is a misallocation of precious resources. Instead of spending time arresting those who have had two or three drinks, law enforcement agencies should devote energy to keeping repeat drunk drivers off the road. MADD says money should go into ignition interlock systems, not in incarcerating social drinkers.

Another problem with the proposed BAC change is that, practically speaking, it will be very difficult to achieve. The most recent shift in the BAC levels took 21 years to push through, lowering the levels from 0.10 to 0.08. That only happened after the federal government signed a law threatening to withhold lucrative highway construction money to states. Many experts say there is not enough political will to engage in another decades-long fight to lower levels yet again, especially when the value is debatable.

For decades now the percentage of all highway fatalities that involve alcohol has hovered at around 30 percent. That level was seen when the BAC limit was 0.10 and has stayed the same as the limit fell to 0.08. While the total numbers of alcohol-related fatalities have fallen since the legal limit was lowered, there is no proof that this change occurred because of the new legal limit. After all, the total number of highway fatalities also fell and the percentage of those deaths related to alcohol has stayed stubbornly stuck at a little less than a third.

Experts say that for the new proposal to truly be effective other changes would have to happen as well. The NTSB touts the number of lives saved in Europe after BAC limits were lowered to 0.05, but what it fails to mention is that many of those countries also began implementing random breathalyzer screenings of drivers, something that would be met with a huge outcry in this country.

There have so far been few signs that the majority of this country is eager to follow the lead of Western Europe on this issue. Many Americans would be shocked to learn that Sweden, which recently grew tired of its 0.05 BAC limit, decided to drop it even further, to 0.02 percent. Under such a law many drivers would technically be considered too drunk to driver after consuming less than one drink.

Read: “Room for Debate: Too Drunk To Drive,” by Opinion Editors, published at

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