With .05 BAC recommendation, how low do we finally go?

In our opinion


This weekend is Memorial Day weekend. Officially it’s about remembering those who died in the service of their country, but the three-day timeframe also marks the unofficial beginning of summer.

It’s also one of the deadliest weekends on the road, particularly when it comes to fatalities caused by over consumption of alcohol. According to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2010, Memorial Day was the second-deadliest after Labor Day with 397 fatalities nationally, and second to New Year’s for alcohol-related deaths at 40 percent.

Make no mistake – excessive drinking and getting behind the wheel do not, and never should, mix. In 1982 drunk driving killed over 21,000 people, but thanks to a number of efforts, that figure is down to around 10,000 today.

Many people and organizations have played a role in this reduction and continue to work towards less. Drinking ages in states increased to 21 while maximum legal blood alcohol content (BAC) for drivers dropped from .10 to .08. Increased emphasis patrols by law enforcement agencies, more prosecutions of bars that over-served, awareness campaigns that encouraged calling cabs, designated drivers and knowing “when to say when” have also helped bring alcohol-related traffic deaths down.

Now the National Traffic Safety Board has recommended states take another step by reducing the BAC level again, from .08 to .05. That’s one drink, 12 ounces of beer, four ounces of wine or one ounce of 80-proof alcohol, for a 120-pound woman and two for a 160-pound man.

There is justification for this recommendation. According to Shelly Baldwin of the Washington State Traffic Commission, Washington’s DUI law is “two-pronged.” The first is totality of evidence from any substance-impaired driving such as performance, interaction with an officer, or field sobriety tests.

The second is the BAC, which if a driver hits .08 or more, “says the person is guilty – no other evidence of impairment is needed.” Baldwin said laboratory studies show drivers can become “significantly impaired” with a BAC of .05.

“People displaying these symptoms while driving are already being arrested for DUI,” Baldwin wrote in an email. “Changing the ‘per se’ limit to .05 might just make it easier to convict them.”

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the NTSB’s recommendation. States weren’t gung ho to make the .08 change, and many choose to focus efforts on repeat offenders and offenders with high BAC counts rather than those who have a drink or two with dinner, as evidenced by recently passed legislation in Washington. Even organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the American Automobile Association and the NHTSA declined to endorse the May 14 recommendation.

Granted, there is much more that can be done to discourage drinking and driving, but we wonder how far we need to go. If .05 is instituted, how long will it be before we cite studies and stats to push it down to .03, .01 and even zero?

And it’s not just drunk driving that governments and cause-minded individuals who influence them have sought to limit – witness New York City’s temporary ban on sugary drinks.

How many industries do we potentially have to hurt, in this case the beer, wine and distilled spirits industries along with restaurants, before we accept the fact that it comes down to personal choices. Wouldn’t a better approach be to help people make better choices, rather than infringe on many others’ rights?

We’re not condoning drinking and driving – far from it. But when will we stand up to people who take things to extremes and say enough is enough?


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