NTSB says dropping legal limit for blood-alcohol level in drivers will save lives
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The National Transportation Safety Board Tuesday called on all 50 states to lower the blood-alcohol level that defines alcohol impaired driving from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent, citing road fatalities and injuries as motivation for the change.
"We know that our fatality numbers will come down if we take aggressive measures," NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said, noting also that the board recommended mandatory ignition interlock devices for offenders and increased visibility measures such as police checkpoints to fight impaired driving.
The recommendations do not carry the weight of law but provide a significant federal voice for those seeking change on the state level. They also provided a rallying point for opponents of the change both from the American Beverage Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said it won't curb drunken driving.
"This recommendation is ludicrous. Moving from 0.08 to 0.05 would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior," Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute, said in a news release.
"Further restricting the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to stop hard-core drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel. It would simply divert valuable public resources that should be used to pursue the most dangerous offenders and instead use them to target drivers engaging in perfectly safe behavior," Longwell said.
Pat Bird, prevention program manager for Utah County Department of Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Treatment, said another approach to reducing impaired driving fatalities would be to investigate the behaviors that are driving people to binge drink and drive.
He called legislation to reduce the blood-alcohol level limit more reactive than proactive and said legislators would better serve society by looking at the risky behavior itself.
"Let's get ahead of that and address the demand," he said. "Why are individuals demanding and drinking excessively?"
The American Beverage Institute does support the NTSB's recommendations to require ignition interlock devices on the vehicles of repeat offenders or for first-time offenders who measure at 0.15 percent or above.
"People think that we've solved the drunk driving problem in the United States, but we haven't," Hersman said.
The CDC reports that most impaired driving fatalities involve a blood-alcohol level much higher than the legal limit of 0.08 percent, statistics noted by those opposed to the change. But Hersman said fatalities decreased when states reduced the blood alcohol level from 0.10 percent or higher to 0.08 percent.
The NTSB noted that more than 100 countries already have limits of 0.05 percent, including most countries in Europe, most of South America and Australia. When Australia dropped its blood alcohol level to 0.05 percent, there was a 5 percent-18 percent drop in traffic fatalities in various areas, according to the NTSB.
"That's not going to affect most people having a glass of wine or two at dinner," Hersman said. "This is really to address the impairment issue and for many people they go out and they binge drink, and that's a very different situation than having a couple of drinks at dinner."
Bird of Utah County noted that an increase in alcohol sales taxes would more effectively curb excessive drinking because it would make risk-taking with alcohol more expensive.
Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, said he will propose a bill in the Utah legislative session that would match the beer tax to the consumer price index, so the tax will adjust with the index levels.
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