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Proposal to lower blood alcohol level could improve driving safety, researcher says

Published: Sunday, Oct. 13 2013 9:35 p.m. MDT

Would lowering the state’s legal limit for a driver’s blood alcohol level make Utah roads safer? A local conservative public policy think tank believes so and is joining an effort to reduce the legal level nationwide.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Would lowering the legal limit for a driver’s blood alcohol level make Utah roads safer?

A local public policy think tank believes so and is joining an effort to reduce the legal level nationwide.

Arguing it would reduce fatal accidents, the National Transportation Safety Board in May called on all 50 states to lower the blood alcohol level that defines drunken driving to 0.05 percent. Utah's limit is 0.08 percent.

The NTSB noted that more than 100 countries already have limits of 0.05 percent, including most nations in Europe, much of South America and Australia. When Australia dropped its blood alcohol level to 0.05 percent, there was a 5 percent to 18 percent drop in traffic fatalities in various areas, according to the NTSB.

Lowering the rate to 0.05 would save about 500 to 800 lives annually in the U.S., the safety board said.

The Salt Lake City-based nonprofit Sutherland Institute favors the change on the basis that lives would be saved, according to public policy director Derek Monson.

“We think it’s good for public safety and for public health,” he said. “(Research suggests) that it is clear that 0.05 is a much safer standard than 0.08 in terms of your ability to drive safely, as well as the reality of people getting into accidents and causing other harm.”

Monson said alcohol abuse can lead to violence on roads and highways, as well as other negative actions as impaired individuals exhibit abnormal behavior due to intoxication.

“We are talking about the regulation of a drug … and recognizing that while we allow alcohol consumption because it’s a way for people to cope with life — and everybody needs a way to cope with the stresses of life — (but) we are also not going to be blind to the fact this is a coping mechanism that has a lot of social problems associated with it as it relates to heavy drinking,” he explained.

The Sutherland Institute has invited a veteran researcher to present data on the potential impacts of reducing blood alcohol levels to speak to Utah lawmakers next week.

James Fell, senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, Alcohol, Policy and Safety Research Center in Calverton, Md., is scheduled to make a presentation before the Transportation Interim Committee on Wednesday.

Fell said research showed most people experience a decline in both cognitive and visual functions related to driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.05.

“You have a significant risk of being involved in a crash, especially being involved in a fatal crash,” he said.

When surveyed, Fell said, every age group when asked at what point they thought driving impairment began responded, "Two drinks."

Research indicates that the average male typically would hit the 0.08 threshold after four drinks over an hour on an empty stomach, he said. That same person could reach the 0.05 level after two to three drinks over the same period.

“For most people (with food), they wouldn’t even reach 0.05 after two or three drinks,” Fell said.

Beginning in the 1980s, numerous safety advocacy groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving brought attention to impaired driving. Many states at the time required a 0.15 blood alcohol content level to demonstrate intoxication.

Over the next two decades, MADD and other groups pushed states to adopt the 0.08 standard that is prevalent today, with Utah in 1983 becoming the first state to adopt the standard. By 2004, all states had adopted that standard.

The NTSB reported the number of alcohol-related highway fatalities dropped from 20,000 in 1980 to less than 10,000 in 2011. Today, about 31 percent of all fatal highway accidents are attributed to alcohol impairment, the agency said.

Fell said the reduced blood alcohol level has proven to be effective at lowering highway deaths abroad and could work just as well in the U.S. if the standard becomes law. However, he noted that critics of the measure like the alcohol and hospitality industries have lobbied hard against dropping the standard any further.

If Utah were to adopt the lower standard, then the NTSB could research its effectiveness over time to determine if empirical data would support the notion of improved public safety, Fell said.

“Most studies are showing an 8 percent to 18 percent reduction in impaired driving fatalities associated with lowering the limit,” he said. “When you lower the limit and it’s publicized, people … either stop drinking and driving or have fewer drinks before they drive. That reduces the risk of being involved in a crash.”

While no state lawmakers have expressed interest in supporting such a change in Utah, Fell and Monson said presenting evidence of the potential public safety benefits could create some awareness.

“Studies show that there is significant impairment at 0.05 with regard to some critical driving tasks,” Fell said. “If (the proposed law) has an 8 (percent) to 10 percent effect, that will save almost a thousand lives a year.”

E-mail: jlee@deseretnews.com

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