A federal safety board stirred up debate Tuesday when it recommended that states cut the threshold for drunken driving almost in half – from a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.
That’s about one drink for a woman weighing less than 120 pounds and two for a 160-pound man.
“It’s overkill,” said Sam Maislin, a local defense attorney. “It’s not realistic.”
“That’s feel-good legislation, that’s all that is,” said Rick Sampson, president of the New York State Restaurant Association.
But lowering that threshold wouldn’t be much of a change for New York State, said John Sullivan, director of the Erie County STOP-DWI Office. A 0.06 is already considered driving under the influence in New York, he noted. And while that’s a violation – not a criminal offense – it does come with some serious sanctions if convicted: a $300 fine, a 90-day suspension of your license and insurance rates that are sure to skyrocket, he said.
Furthermore, Sullivan noted, the typical drunk driver arrested in Erie County averages a blood alcohol content of 0.13 percent – nearly three times the recommended threshold.
“In New York we have always had a very high standard, and the typical drunk driver is already way over the 0.08 standard anyway,” Sullivan said. “I don’t believe that lowering the standard is going to make the typical drunk driver any less drunk.”
The recommendation was one of nearly 20 made Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The board said new approaches are needed to combat drunken driving, which claims the lives of about a third of the more than 30,000 people killed each year on U.S. highways – a level of carnage that has remained stubbornly consistent for the past decade and a half, the Associated Press reported.
Alcohol concentration levels as low as 0.01 have been associated with impaired driving-related performance, and levels as low as 0.05 have been associated with significantly increased risk of fatal crashes, the board said.
More than 100 countries have adopted the 0.05 blood alcohol content standard or lower, including in Europe, where the share of traffic deaths attributable to drunken driving was reduced by more than half within 10 years after the standard was lowered, according to a report cited by the AP.
“Our goal is to get to zero deaths because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said. “Alcohol-impaired deaths are not accidents, they are crimes. They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will.”
However, a blood alcohol content threshold of 0.05 percent is likely to meet strong resistance from states, said Jonathan Adkins, an official with the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices.
Even safety groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and AAA declined Tuesday to endorse the NTSB’s call for a 0.05 threshold.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets national safety policy, also stopped short of endorsing the board’s recommendation.
“It was very difficult to get 0.08 in most states, so lowering it again won’t be popular,” Adkins said. He said the focus in the states is on drivers with high blood alcohol content as well as repeat offenders. “We expect industry will also be very vocal about keeping the limit at 0.08,” he added.
Maislin, the defense attorney who specializes in DWI cases, had a similar reaction.
“You got to be kidding,” he said. “By changing a number, they’re anticipating there are going to be reduced deaths? I’m sorry, that’s not going to happen.”
Lowering the threshold would be devastating for the restaurant business, added Sampson.
“For most people it’s going to be one drink, and that’s all they’re going to have,” he said. “Even going to 0.08 we saw a dramatic impact.”
While he is sensitive to the issue of drunken driving and DWI-related deaths, Sampson said, New York already has tough DWI laws – it just has to enforce them.
He also thinks the law targets responsible drinkers. The real problem, he said, are those drivers who could care less about whether the threshold is 0.05 or 0.08.
Both Maislin and Sampson wondered if the federal government would pressure states to enact the lower threshold by threatening to withhold transportation funds.
“This is typical government,” Sampson said. “They throw something out there without really thinking it through.”
While there is no one silver bullet for stopping drunken driving, reminding people of the consequences is a good start, Sullivan said. Educating people about the basics of alcohol and how it affects them also will go a long way toward curbing the problem, he said.
Body size, food intake, percentage of body fat, and gender affect a person’s blood alcohol content, so two people who drink the same amount over time may show different results.
For instance, a 195-pound man who drinks five 12-ounce cans of beer over three hours would register a 0.06 percent blood alcohol content, according to a calculator on the STOP-DWI website. For a 165-pound woman, four 12-ounce beers over three hours would lead to an estimated 0.07 percent reading, according to the calculator.
“It’s important for everyone to remember your driving diminishes with every drink, including your first one,” Sullivan said. “The best course of action is to separate drinking and driving. If you are going to drink, you should leave the driving for someone else.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org