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Lowering the blood alcohol level to .05 is not the answer



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Loathe as I am the wander into the blood alcohol limit debate, I’m making an exception this time, to come out against the proposal to lower the drunken driving threshold to .05, down from its current .08.

The idea is being floated by the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency of the U.S. government established in 1967 within the Department of Transportation. The NTSB plays an important part in keeping this country’s transportation infrastructure safe; for instance, it investigates airline and rail accidents. So I hope the government keeps them well-funded. It’s just that, this time, they’re wrong.

The .08 limit was signed into law in by President Bill Clinton, who at the time called it “the biggest step to toughen drunk driving laws and reduce alcohol-related crashes since the national minimum drinking age was established a generation ago.” The law’s passing exemplified the growing power of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the power halls of Washington, D.C., throughout the late 1990s.

I have always had mixed feelings about any laws that curtail people’s freedom of behavior. Of course, we need a criminal code to keep people’s worst instincts from running amok, and there are many curtailments on human activities that are needed in order to protect the greater good and safety of our communities. The problem always is in defining precisely where the line should be drawn between freedom and government restriction. The recreational use of pot is a good example.

I suppose the .08 limit made sense. It seems to have worked: traffic fatalities in this country caused by drunk drivers are down since then. In 1999, they numbered 15,786; by 2011, that number had fallen to 9,878, a significant reduction. (Although it’s also possible that other factors, such as safer cars and increased driver awareness, contributed to the decline.) So why not go this next step and lower the limit to .05?

Couple reasons. For one, different people react differently to alcohol in the blood. There’s no question that alcohol, taken to excess, impairs driving ability, but it also seems obvious that millions of people have a drink or two and drive everyday, with no harmful results. A perfectly good, safe driver could find himself in jail simply for drinking a beer or two with lunch.

Another reason I’m against the proposal is because I don’t like laws that nobody obeys, with no consequences of punishment. I don’t like HOV lanes because single drivers abuse them all the time, with little fear of getting stopped by the Highway Patrol. This disregard of laws makes laws less esteemed among the public, and when a nation disregards and disrespects its own laws, it’s on some kind of slippery slope. So why criminalize a behavior (moderate drinking and driving) that tens of millions of Americans are going to completely ignore anyway? It just makes a mockery of the concept of “law.”

Moreover, the tests that measure blood alcohol are notoriously inaccurate. What if the machine says I’m .051 when I’m actually .049? How do I defend myself? Finally, why stop at .05? Why not come up with a law that prohibits any trace of alcohol in the blood, regardless of how low it is? If any drinking at all constitutes risk, then we should outlaw drinking and driving, period.

I should add that I, personally, never drink and drive. I haven’t since 2001. Not even a half-glass of wine or beer. I simply can’t afford the price that a DUI or collision would cost me, financially, legally and reputationally. Whenever I’m out drinking, I’m with someone else who’s doing the driving, or I walk or take the subway. (It does get to be an inconvenience!)

I understand the impulse to try and prevent all the death and injury we can. But I do think we need to draw the line someplace in our efforts to prevent every risk to life and limb imaginable through government intervention. There’s no way to make life risk free. The answer to drunk driving is to educate people (including to the need for designated drivers), to make them think smarter, and to be as respectful of our obligations to others as we are protective of our own personal freedoms. But that’s a whole other conversation.

  1. “Finally, why stop at .05? Why not come up with a law that prohibits any trace of alcohol in the blood, regardless of how low it is? If any drinking at all constitutes risk, then we should outlaw drinking and driving, period.”


    Here’s what I need to hear: A proponent of lowering the BAC level to .05 who can also explain to me why it ought not be lowered to .03.

  2. Keasling says:

    Hear, hear Steve. I also want to tack-on that our country notoriously loves its cars. In so many cities, if you have a few cocktails at Happy Hour, there are no other options of getting home to your suburban home 30 miles away (besides a $70 cab fare). And yes, while $70 is cheaper than getting a DUI, people throw the dice and decide to risk it. In my eyes, there is no reason why mass transit development can’t be included in future sprawl… Especially those cities who self-profess themselves to be a foodie/imbibe city.

  3. Let’s be clear about this. There is no level of blood alcohol above 0.0 that is safer than 0.0. We cannot escape that reality. It is why, Steve, you do not consume even a drop and then drive.

    I happen to follow a different policy, but I also tend to think that BA levels of 0.8 or even the old 0.10 are safe.

    Now, MADD and other zealouts will argue that I am settling for “safe enough” and perhaps I am, and perhaps you are too in arguing for 0.8% as reasonable and appropriate.

    But, if we really wanted safer driving, we would go back to 55 mph limits on most roads, enforce distance between cars limits that do exist on the books, go back to pass only on the left and get out of the passing lane if you are not passing (at 55 mph, of course).

    We don’t do these things because the people would pay as much attention as they did to Prohibition. And, of course, this is really all about Prohibition when you get right down to it. There is no level of blood alcohol that is safer than 0.0. And probably 40 mph is safer than 55.

    We do need laws in this country. They are for our protection and for the appropriate functioning of society. But, we also do not need to be so coddled, babied, limited that we essentially exist in cocoons.

    It is all about Prohibition in the long run–as is the recently proposed law here in CA that any establishment caught selling liquor to a minor would lose its license and commit a felony.

    Same thing: drinking is bad. That, more than any reason, is why we need to oppose this new standard. It is just one more step on the road back to Prohibition.

  4. Charlie: Totally agree. It’s a slippery slope.

  5. Tom: Exactly. And once it’s .03, why not .01? See Charlie Olken’s comment.

  6. John Lahart says:

    The end game is zero tolerance.
    When they came for cigarettes…..
    I didn’t smoke cigarettes so…

    Stanley Kubrick (another Bronx boy) dealt with this in Clockwork Orange.

    Think about it.
    Given the role of alcohol abuse in not just driving but domestic violence and….
    It is easier to just restrict (read ban) alcohol than deal with abuse.

    No, we won’t go back to prohibition. We will continue down the road of restriction which
    will lead to de facto prohibition.

  7. I’m guessing when drunk drivers cause accidents their blood alcohol tends to be well above the current legal limit. Lowering the current limit would only hurt the socially responsible diner.
    (Nicole Richie @ 1.3/1.2, Tim Allen @ 1.5, Mel Gibson @ 1.2, Charles Barkley @ 1.49)

  8. I wonder if there are any statistics on what type of alcohol people who do cause accidents drink. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that the people who enjoy wine over the course of a dinner are not the ones who are the problem.

  9. Bill Haydon says:

    I believe that I read a study showing that the average drunk driver involved in an injury/fatality accident is a repeat offender with a BAC over twice the legal limit.

    MADD stopped being about the issue of “drunk driving” a long time ago. They’ve been hijacked by religious extremists who use the legitimate issue of drunk driving as cover for an all-out assault on the very notion of any and all social drinking.

  10. Bill Haydon says:

    For anyone interested, here is a good summation of the founding of MADD and why its founder later left the organization and has been speaking out against its current neo-prohibitionist agenda.

  11. Bill Haydon, thank you.

  12. I rarely every drink (Anything) and drive but if I have a glass of wine or beer I simply carry a blood alcohol tester in my car. Very easy, not expensive. I believe .08 is fine, it has lowered fatal accidents in the US but if they lower if further I will still have the same test to make sure I am ok. In our industry I think its a must…

  13. Sorry to burst the bubble, but even with a BAC below .08%, you can still be charged with a DUI. The prosecution will just have to prove that your judgment was impaired to a degree that you couldn’t safely operate a motor vehicle. Below .08%, impairment is not presumed. But, the prosecution can present other evidence to prove impairment (erratic driving, bloodshot eyes, stumbling, slurred speech, “failing” field sobriety “tests”, etc…and the courts generally take the arresting officer’s word for these subjective evaluations. One of my employees’s was convicted with .02% level in Yolo county! Join DDAMM (Drunk Driver Against Mad Mothers) End the lunacy!

  14. Gerald Asher says:

    Nobody wants to encourage or even tolerate drunk driving, but few seem to be aware now of the Grand Rapids study of 1962 that set most of the standards we use today. Those interested can look it up, but the study, in which everyone who used the roads of Grand Rapids over a set period was automatically tested and their driving skills checked. There were differences, as one might expect, caused by experience and also by gender. (Fewer women in those days were in the habit of driving long distances or commuter regularly.) There were two points of special signifiucance to any discussion of blood alcohol level. First, the study showed that, regardless of gener, experience or age, impairment affecting ability to drive safely began to appear at blood levels of .08 and above. It also showed that the safest drivers were not those with 0 blood alcogol, but the group with ,02 blood alcohol. There were many reasons put forward for this and I won’t go into them now. But though conditions in our socity and on our roads have changed since 1962, I recommend that those who clamor for change should first read the report of the most comprehensive study we have yet had.

  15. Robert Fowles says:

    Liono is exactly right. The vast majority of drunk driving injury accidents are caused by repeat offenders with a BAC of nearly twice the legal limit. Lowering the present law to .05 will not lead to another 37% reduction in drunk driving fatalities like we’ve seen since 1999. Instead, it will simply harm the restaurant industry and those who enjoy a bottle of wine or a couple of beers with dinner.

  16. DDAMM? Really?

  17. Past studies have shown a high percentage of DUI arrests of “joe 6-pack–i.e. Beer drinking. Next, is distilled spirits and lastly, wine drinkers, somewhere in the area of <10% of DUI arrsts. And, yes Steve…DAMM–Drunks Against Mad Mothers–I refer you to Foster Brooks, comedian.

  18. I understand everybody subjectively believes they can tolerate alcohol well, and your ability to perform divided attention tasks required in driving aren’t impaired. Put aside those subjective beliefs and read the NTSB report. As the report states, on pages 18-20, a person’s ability to perform divided attention tasks which are critical to driving decreases as more alcohol is in the blood stream.

    It is on that basis—that you become impaired as your blood alcohol level rises above a .05–that this recommendation is made. It has nothing to do with being “puritan”, a hijacking by MADD, etc. When you are impaired by alcohol, you are a danger to others on the roadway.

    You can drink all you want, have every glass of wine you want at dinner. Just do everybody else on the road a favor and don’t drive afterwards. Really not too hard to do.

  19. Unfortunately most laws are as strict as they are because of the 1-2% of people that don’t use common sense and go way beyond the norm. Most laws, including this one, would not pass in popular vote format.

    Common People!

    Second point. If I have a FEW drinks I am even more careful when I drive.

    Common People!!

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