How Effective Are `.08' Drunk-Driving Laws?
State efforts to combat drunk driving have, by all accounts, worked to good effect. Alcohol-related fatalities have declined sharply over the past 15 years. Currently, it is illegal in every state to drive while under the influence of alcohol. In addition, all states but two have blood alcohol "per se" laws--laws that make it unlawful for a person to drive with a specific amount of alcohol in his blood. How low this amount should be has drawn controversy. Thirty-two states have set this amount at .10 BAC (blood alcohol content). In 16 states, however, the per se limit is 20% lower, or .08 BAC and the Clinton Administration has pushed to extend this limit to other states, raising concerns that drivers who pose little threat on the highways will be unfairly penalized. As the following excerpts from a recent General Accounting Office report reveal, the effectiveness of these `.08' limits have not been sufficiently supported by the safety data, despite official assertions to the contrary.
Since 1970, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has espoused a "systems approach" to reducing drunk driving, including enforcement, judicial, legislative, licensing, and public information components. In 1997, NHTSA published an action plan developed with other participants to reduce alcohol-related driving fatalities to 11,000 by the year 2005. This plan recommended that all states pass a wide range of laws, including ones establishing .08 BAC limits, license revocation laws--under which a person deemed to be driving under the influence has his or her driving privileges suspended or revoked--comprehensive screening and treatment programs for alcohol offenders, vehicle impoundment, "zero tolerance" BAC and other laws for youth, and primary enforcement laws for safety belts. The plan also called for increased public awareness campaigns, with an emphasis on target populations such as young people and repeat offenders.
The value of public education and enforcement has been demonstrated in a number of studies. A recent NHTSA evaluation of a sobriety check-point program in Tennessee, a state with a .10 BAC limit, concluded that the program and its attendant publicity reduced alcohol-related fatal accidents in that state by 20.4%.
One of NHTSA's principal arguments for nationwide adoption of .08 BAC laws is that the medical evidence of drivers' impairment at that level is substantial and conclusive. According to NHTSA, reaction time, tracking and steering, and emergency responses are impaired at even low levels, and substantially impaired at .08 BAC. As a result, the risk of being in a motor vehicle crash increases when alcohol is involved, and increases dramatically at .08 BAC and higher levels. In contrast to NHTSA's position, industry associations critical of .08 BAC laws contend that .08 BAC is an acceptable level of impairment for driving a motor vehicle and that these laws penalize "responsible social drinking."
These associations also believe that .08 BAC laws do not address the problem of drunk driving because many more drivers using alcohol are reported at the "high" BAC levels (above .10 BAC) than at the lower BAC levels. Because we were directed to review the impact of .08 BAC laws on the number and severity of crashes involving alcohol, we did not review the medical evidence on impairment or other arguments in favor of or in opposition to .08 BAC laws.
NHTSA also believes that lowering the BAC limit to .08 is a proven effective measure that will reduce the number of crashes and save lives. For example, in a December 1997 publication, NHTSA stated that "recent research ... has been quite conclusive in showing the impaired driving reductions already attributable to .08, as well as the potential for saving additional lives if all states adopted .08 BAC laws." In May 1998, the NHTSA Administrator stated, "The traffic safety administration is aware of four published studies, . …