Here’s a fact: As long as Americans consume legal intoxicants, there will be debate about the point at which drivers must relinquish the keys.
Decades ago, driving while intoxicated wasn’t considered all that serious. In 1941, legal intoxication was defined as a blood alcohol content of .15 percent. Over time that was lowered to .12 percent, then to .10 percent and, eventually, under pressure from the Clinton administration, to .08 percent.
Now, the National Transportation Safety Board is proposing that the threshold be cut further, to .05 percent. Based on experience in Europe and elsewhere, the change could save thousands of lives a year. That’s a compelling argument toward a goal that any sensible person shares.
Drunken driving remains a scourge on roads across the country. Horrible deaths occur in Western New York with something like a disturbing regularity. And more often than not, it seems, the driver walks away uninjured while an innocent passenger, pedestrian, motorist, skateboarder or bicyclist is killed. It is in the interest of all New Yorkers to reduce the incidence of drunken driving. The question is whether this proposed change would help, and whether other changes could make a bigger difference.
First of all, the current laws are enforced unevenly. First offenses are often pleaded down. Subsequent offenses, even many of them, may not produce serious consequences.
In Lockport recently, a man charged with DWI was found to have had his license revoked six times on alcohol-related charges and for refusing to submit to a chemical test. It’s hardly an isolated incident.
In another egregious case, a Niagara Falls man with three previous DWI convictions was driving drunk when he plowed his motorcycle into a group of pedestrians on an Amherst bike path last year, killing two women and injuring a man. The driver, David A. Smith, finally received a prison sentence.
A lower blood-alcohol limit wouldn’t dissuade drivers such as that from getting behind the wheel. That change is aimed more at social drinkers who, according to some experts, comprise only a small part of the problem of drunken driving.
It is a difficult question. If a couple goes out to dinner and shares a bottle of wine – hardly an uncommon occurrence – does the driver become a public menace if he or she reaches .05 percent? What would such a change do to the restaurant and bar businesses, and should that even matter if, indeed, it resulted in thousands of lives saved every year?
This is a proposal to consider carefully but not to act on immediately. Instead, New York and other states should do more to vigorously enforce existing laws to see what benefit that produces.
While driving under the influence is treated far more seriously than it was decades ago, there is a lot of room for action short of this change that can be undertaken to deal with a problem that may never go away, but that can and should be further diminished.