One out of three deaths on U.S. roads involves drinking and driving, a tragic reality made even more troubling because it has not changed in more than a decade and a half. In 2012, the number of motorists killed in needless and preventable crashes involving drunk drivers increased for the first time since 2005 by 4.6 percent. This represents a total of 10,322 lives lost that year due to alcohol impairment.
In 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board issued 19 new safety recommendations on every important aspect of alcohol-impaired driving that will prevent crashes, reduce injuries and save lives. The NTSB’s full set of targeted interventions calls for a combination of stronger laws, swifter enforcement and expanded use of technology to prevent the grim, yearly average of 10,000 lives lost and 173,000 injuries that cost the country roughly $130 billion.
These interventions include the first science-based recommendation on lowering the legal blood alcohol concentration limit in years, because any impairment compromising a driver’s ability places lives in jeopardy. The NTSB, charged with investigating transportation accidents and making safety recommendations, cannot ignore the facts. Studies in other countries show that lowering the legal BAC limit to 0.05 has reduced highway fatalities by between 8 and 18 percent. Applied to U.S. numbers, lowering the legal limit to 0.05 BAC or below could protect between 1,000 to 2,000 lives annually, prevent countless injuries and save billions of dollars in associated costs.
A new University of California, San Diego study on highway crashes shows that “minimally buzzed” drivers even with blood alcohol levels as low as 0.01, far below today’s 0.08 legal limit, are often responsible for deaths on the road. Researchers analyzed 570,731 fatal collisions from 1994 to 2011 and found a direct correlation between low-level alcohol impairment and greater accident severity. The data show that drivers with a BAC of just 0.01 are 46 percent more likely to be blamed for car crashes than the sober drivers they collide with.
There is no argument that addressing this leading killer on America’s roads requires a bold, multifaceted approach acknowledging every possible scenario of driving while impaired by alcohol – from repeat offenders to those who have simply had too much to drink and cannot operate a vehicle safely.
Blood alcohol levels higher than 0.05 increase the risk of a fatal crash significantly. And even at 0.05, the chances of killing or being killed behind the wheel are 38 percent greater than driving sober, because at that level most drivers have impaired alertness, vision and responsiveness. Over 100 nations have already lowered their legal BAC limits to 0.05 or lower with proven results while the United States lags behind.
The NTSB is not advocating abstinence from drinking alcohol. Rather, it is recommending the common-sense separation of consuming alcohol from the driving task. Impairment behind the wheel begins with the first drink, and we must foster a higher degree of personal responsibility not to drink and drive with strategies such as using a designated driver, having the last drink well before getting on the road, walking, taking a cab or public transit, and employing alternative transportation services to take people home after they’ve drunk too much. Someone’s life may depend on that decision. No one has the right to drink and then risk lives by driving impaired. lThis Article is a work of the U.S. Federal Government under Title 17, Chapter 1, § 105 of the United States Code (as amended).