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.