On January 15th of last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Board (NHTSA) issued the following news release:
Feds Want to Lower the Legal Limit to One Drink
Washington, DC. Jan. 15 – The National Transportation Safety Board wants to decrease the legal driving limit to one drink, lowering the legal limit on blood-alcohol content to 0.05 “or even lower.”…
The agency issued the recommendation while admitting that “the amount consumed and crash risk is not well understood.”
“We need more and better data to understand the scope of the problem and the effectiveness of countermeasures,” they said….
A 0.05 BAC level would reduce the number of drinks an average-weight man of 180 pounds could have to two, according to Blood Alcohol Calculator. Women could only have one drink before they exceeded the limit. A 100-pound woman reaches .05 BAC with just one drink, but two drinks would put any woman under 220 pounds at or above the government’s desired limit.
Under the current level of 0.08, an average weight man can have four drinks until reaching the limit.
On the next day, I posted the following on this blog:
To give all of this some context, let me offer a history of this focus on the lowering of blood-alcohol limits rather than on the more important issue of alcohol-caused impairment….
The original drunk driving laws were simple and fair: Don’t drive under the influence of alcohol (DUI). Then, many years ago, law enforcement came up with crude devices to measure alcohol on the breath of drunk driving suspects. But what did, say, a .13% blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) mean? They turned to the American Medical Association which, in 1938, created a “Committee to Study Problems of Motor Vehicle Accidents”. At the same time, the National Safety Council set up a “Committee on Tests for Intoxication”.
After some study, these two groups came up with their findings: a driver with .15% BAC or higher could be presumed to be “under the influence”; those under .15% could not. That’s right: .15%. And that recommendation lasted for 22 years. But prosecutors and certain groups of “concerned mothers” were not happy with the low DUI arrest and conviction rates.
Under increasing political pressure, the committees “revisited” the question in 1960 and agreed to lower the presumed level of intoxication to .10%. Had the human body changed in 22 years? Had the AMA been negligent in their earlier studies? Or were politics and law once again trumping scientific truth?
Well, the arrest and conviction rates shot up, but there were still too many people escaping the DUI net. Then MADD was formed. Soon after, legislation began appearing in many states that created a second crime, in addition to driving under the influence: driving with a BAC of .10% or higher.
This new crime did not require the driver to be affected by alcohol: even if sober, he would be guilty if his blood-alcohol was .10%. In effect, it completely ignored the questions of intoxication, driving impairment and individual tolerance to alcohol. And, despite questions of double jeopardy, the individual could be charged and even convicted of both the traditional DUI and the new .10% crimes! This gave police and prosecutors a powerful new weapon, and drunk driving arrests/convictions jumped once again.
This was not good enough. Under increasing pressure from an ever more powerful MADD, in 1990 four states lowered the blood-alcohol level in DUI cases to .08%; others soon followed and, ten years later, federal politicians (with one eye on MADD) passed an appropriations bill in effect coercing all states into adopting the new .08% BAC standard.
Since I wrote this, three months ago Utah enacted a new law lowering the blood-alcohol level drunk driving to .05%. See Jon Ibanez’ DUIblog post Utah Lawmakers Vote to Lower State’s BAC Limit to 0.05%.
Interestingly, on June 17th — shortly after the new .05% law was enacted — the Salt Lake City Tribune published the following comments from the original founder of MADD, Candy Lightner:
Founder of MADD Says Utah’s New Drunk Driving Law is an Unhealthy Distraction
Salt Lake City, Ut. June 17 – While drunk driving remains a serious concern, other threats are mounting on our roadways. According to a recent report from the Governors Highway Safety Association and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, 43 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes tested positive for some sort of drug, legal or illegal. And with the rise of smartphones and other gadgets, people are distracted more than ever while driving.
As the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) I can attest that there is a new kind of madness on the roads. And new approaches are needed to save lives.
Unfortunately, the necessary debate on how to solve these new challenges isn’t happening in earnest. The traffic safety community is distracted by an issue that will do little to save lives: lowering the drunk driving arrest threshold from .08 to .05.
Back in the early years at MADD we focused on getting serious drunk drivers off the road…In the more than 35 years since MADD’s founding, we have fought drunk driving ferociously and saved countless lives in the process.
But today, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction — with government agencies pushing states to arrest people for having little to drink before driving instead of pursuing strategies to tackle serious distraction and impairment. Anyone who works in traffic safety knows that most highway deaths are not caused by drivers with low blood alcohol content levels, but are the result of drivers with substance abuse disorders. Focusing finite resources on casual drinkers instead of drug and alcohol abusers is a miscalculation with deadly consequences…
Maybe it’s time for the decades-old “War on Drunk Driving” to redirect its fixation away from alcohol and towards the real problem today: drugs and distracted driving….