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.
"We hope there's a deterrent effect. We hope that folks will be responsible and realize either that they're endangering other people if they exceed that limit or they're going to face some severe consequences if they do."
Draxler said he could also see support in Utah for the NTSB recommendations. The proposal has the support of the Utah Highway Patrol if it will take even one drunken driver off the road.
"We support the NTSB's decision to reduce fatalities through a reduction of the BAC levels," Cpl. Todd Johnson, public information officer for the Utah Highway Patrol, said. Johnson said he has seen drivers who were impaired with levels around 0.03 percent and 0.04 percent.
"However, we recognize that it will take time to pass legislation, to make it effective in Utah and to train officers and prosecutors if it were to become effective."
Utah and Oregon were the first two states to adopt a 0.08 percent level in 1983. In 2001, federal law was passed to allow lawmakers to withhold federal funding for highways if a states did not implement enforcement of the 0.08 level. Delaware was the last state to adopt the 0.08 percent level in 2004.
What does .05 look like?
Blood-alcohol content can vary according to factors such body weight, gender, age, medication and the type of drink. On average, the Utah Highway Patrol estimates that driving impairment can begin anywhere from a half to two drinks, or 0.01 to 0.02 percent. Concentration, judgment and reactions are delayed from one to four drinks or 0.03 to 0.07 percent.
Battling drunken driving
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has measured ways to prevent injury and death from impaired driving:
Actively enforcing existing 0.08 percent blood alcohol level laws, minimum legal drinking age laws, and zero tolerance laws for drivers younger than 21 years old in all states.
Promptly taking away the driver's license of people who drive while intoxicated.
Putting health promotion efforts into practice that influence economic, organizational, policy, and school/community action.
Using community-based approaches to alcohol control and DUI prevention.
Requiring mandatory substance abuse assessment and treatment, if needed, for offenders.
Raising the unit price of alcohol by increasing taxes.
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