On its surface, the recommendation seems simple: reduce the legal
limit for blood-alcohol content (BAC), and drunken-driving
fatalities will fall, too.
But nearly as soon as the National Transportation Safety Board
(NTSB) made that proposal Tuesday, a chorus of dissent began. Lower
the BAC limit, critics argued, and you criminalize responsible
social drinkers - and do little to make the roads safer.
And the opposition came from some unlikely corners.
"As a mother whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver, the
most important thing to me is that we save as many lives as we can
as soon as possible," says Jan Withers, president of Mothers Against
Drunk Driving (MADD). "The issue with lowering the legal limit is
that it will take a lot of effort for a potential result that is
many, many years down the line."
While MADD doesn't oppose the idea of lowering the legal limit in
principle, it's the wrong place for the government to focus its
efforts against drunken driving now, she says. It's a critique
mirrored by many involved with drunken-driving policy issues.
The NTSB is proposing that the legal limit for BAC be reduced
from its current level of 0.08 to 0.05.
There's no neat correlation between blood-alcohol level and
drinks consumed, but in general, a 140-pound person could consume
three drinks and fall below the 0.08 ceiling, and a 180-pound person
four. But if the limit were set at 0.05, that would drop to two
drinks or less for the smaller person and three for the larger.
"The fact is, many alcohol-involved traffic incidents aren't
caused by alcoholics, but just people who had one too many, and
lowering the legal limit helps deter those people," says Thomas
Babor, an expert on alcohol abuse at the University of Connecticut's
medical school in Farmington.
Indeed, both supporters and critics of the NTSB recommendation
agree on that point: Drunken drivers shouldn't be on the road. But
how you make that happen is a sticking point.
According to the NTSB, a driver with a BAC of 0.05 is 38 percent
more likely to be in a crash as compared with a completely sober
driver, and a driver with a level of 0.08 is 169 percent more
likely. (The figure rises to nearly 400 percent when the driver has
a BAC of 0.10.)
At 0.05, individuals are "as distracted as you are when you have
the radio up too loud," says Sarah Longwell, managing director of
the American Beverage Institute, a trade organization.
"This would have a devastating impact on the hospitality industry
while having no corollary benefit for public safety," she says. …