A study published in January, 2018, established that lowering the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit from 0.08 to 0.05 across all states would save lives. Another study released back in 2013 by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) pointed out many of the same issues and reasons for change.
As a nation, we have made a lot of progress in reducing drunk driving, especially during the twenty years that started in the early 1980s. This includes limiting the legal BAC to 0.08 percent and increasing the drinking age to 21. But following the early 2000s, progress ground to a halt, and DUI numbers have started to rise again.
Statistical averages indicate that one-third of all traffic deaths are due to at least one of the drivers in the crash operating under the influence of alcohol. Forty percent of the persons who die in collisions are not drunk drivers—they are victims. The deaths that result from alcohol-impaired driving have added up recently to more than 10,000 each year; we would all like to see this number drop to zero.
What the Study Said
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sponsored the study Vision Zero, which was carried out by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The biggest recommendation produced by the study was the call to lower the legal BAC from 0.08 to 0.05. Reasons given include the fact that a 0.05 percent limit saves lives, as has been shown in other countries. A lower limit could reduce alcohol-impaired driving deaths by 10 percent each year.
Alcoholic impairment has been measured at the low level of BAC 0.02, which amounts to less than one drink. At a BAC of 0.05, a reduced ability to respond to emergencies and to track moving objects, along with reduced coordination and steering difficulties, have all been measured in drivers. How much alcohol can you drink before you have a BAC of 0.05 percent? That’s a complicated question.
One of the problems with BAC limits is the difficulty of determining how many drinks a person can take before hitting the legal limit. A long list of factors play a role, such as age, weight, gender, food intake, current medications, and sleepiness. On top of that, serving sizes are extremely varied. One ounce of hard liquor equals one serving, as do 5 ounces of wine and 12 ounces of beer, but it can be difficult to know what the bartender is actually pouring.
With a 0.05 BAC limit, a 120-pound woman would be considered ”illegal” after only one glass of wine, and a 180-pound man would be able to drink only two beers. Keep in mind that these are average figures and could vary widely depending on the person.
Other factors that reduce the risks of alcohol-impaired driving were also spotlighted in the study. They include:
- Increasing alcohol taxes, which are shown to reduce both binge drinking and alcohol-related traffic deaths
- Stiffening current laws regarding sales to those under 21 and to those already intoxicated
- Passing laws that require ignition interlocks (BAC analyzers that are connected to a vehicle) for anyone convicted of drunk driving
- Establishing special DUI courts and treatment for offenders, especially repeat offenders, who are 62 percent likelier to be in a fatal crash.
Many other points were covered in the study, including the disturbing finding that rural residents are much more likely to be involved in an alcohol-impaired driving fatality. During 2015, almost half (48 percent) of alcohol-impaired traffic deaths took place in rural areas.
States Are Starting to Listen
Until recently, the legal blood alcohol concentration limit for all 50 U.S. states was 0.08 percent. In 2017, Hawaii, Washington, and Utah all considered bills that would drop their state’s legal BAC to 0.05. Only Utah passed a law, which takes effect on December 30, 2018.
In January, 2018, a New York state assemblyman proposed that the 0.08 limit be dropped to 0.05, but his proposal has not yet been scheduled for a vote. However, maybe we are seeing the beginning of a trend.