The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is recommending a new, lower limit for what’s considered driving drunk. The board, which has no regulatory authority, wants states to set the blood-alcohol limit at 0.05 percent for driving. All 50 states now have limits of 0.08 percent.
After reviewing decades’ worth of studies, the board concluded that people still have impaired attention, perception, reaction time and other functions important to driving at the lower blood-alcohol limit. The board also decided that the U.S. hasn’t done enough yet to reduce drunk driving fatalities. About 173,000 people are injured every year in drunk-driver crashes and 10,000 people die, according a report the board published. About 30 percent of traffic deaths in the U.S. in 2011 were alcohol-related.
There’s no magic number at which drinkers become dangerous drivers, of course. There’s a smooth relationship between blood alcohol levels and risk of crashing that starts with even a 0.01 percent blood alcohol level. (Check out the graph on page 21 in the report.) The new 0.05 percent limit the board chose is associated with a 38 percent increased chance of a crash. A 0.08 percent blood alcohol level is associated with a 169 percent increased crash risk.
The board looked at studies of several other anti-drunk-driving measures, too. Based on its reviews, it wants more police-run sobriety checkpoints, more breathalyzer car locks for people who have been convicted of drunk driving, and more specialized drunk driving courts to deal with—and rehabilitate—repeat offenders, who are much more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than other drunk drivers.
The American Beverage Institute, a restaurant industry group, opposes the new recommended blood-alcohol limit. NBC News quoted the institute’s managing director, Sarah Longwell, as calling it “ludicrous.”
“Moving from 0.08 to 0.05 would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior,” she said. “Further restricting the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to stop hardcore drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel.”