There Are Better Ways to Keep Drunk Drivers Off the Road

Lowering blood alcohol content levels won't make driving any safer.

Miami Beach police arrest a woman after she failed a field sobriety test.

Focus law enforcement activity on removing drunk drivers from the road.

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Many drivers with a 0.05 blood alcohol concentration do not exhibit the kind of impaired skills that cause them to drive unsafely. Yet despite operating their vehicles in accordance with all other traffic laws and not putting themselves or others at risk, this group of drivers will constitute a new class of criminals if the call to lower the legal definition of impairment from 0.08 to 0.05 BAC is heeded.

To minimize the devastating effects of drunk driving, society should concentrate on keeping people with high BAC levels and repeat offenders off the road. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tracks alcohol-related fatalities in the United States. (“Alcohol-related” signifies that at least one driver in an accident had a measurable BAC, not necessarily that alcohol was a causational factor.) The agency has found that in those accidents, 92.5 percent of the time the driver’s BAC was 0.10 or higher. Conversely, drivers with BAC levels between 0.05 and 0.08 have been involved in only 2.7 percent of those fatal accidents.

[Read Mark Rosekind: Lowering Blood Alcohol Content Levels Will Save Lives]

It took almost 20 years, culminating in 2004, for all 50 states to change the BAC limit from 0.10 to 0.08. Yet NHTSA data show the anticipated benefits of lowering that standard never materialized. The imposition of the 0.08 level has not changed the percentage of alcohol-related highway fatalities, nor has it altered the relative effect of various BAC thresholds on fatalities.

The total of all highway fatalities did drop by 8.6 percent since 2003. But significant improvements in automobile safety technology – side-impact airbags introduced in 2002 and installed in 30 percent of cars and light trucks by 2008, for example – account for much of that favorable result. The year-over-year consistency of fatality percentages per BAC category (ranging from 0.00 to 0.10) remains remarkably consistent, indicating that lowering the legal impairment limit has a negligible effect on reducing drunk driving. Moreover, the American Beverage Institute has cited studies from Denmark and South Australia, both of which lowered their BAC limit from 0.08 to 0.05, and found no significant effect on alcohol-related fatalities.

The issue of getting high-BAC drivers and repeat driving-under-the-influence offenders off the roads has to be dealt with more effectively. The millions of dollars that would be spent in lowering the DUI limit to 0.05 would divert critical resources from that effort. And by arresting tens of thousands of moderate social drinkers every year who have not operated their vehicles unsafely but been deemed legally impaired, we have further burdened our overtaxed legal and correctional systems.

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There are enough historical data to show that no tangible safety benefits are achieved by focusing on drivers with BACs below 0.08. The command-and-control approach of ever-tighter tolerances and harsher penalties does not work.

So what is the solution? DUI attorneys typically say that short of permanent incarceration, it is nearly impossible to stop people who habitually drink excessively from driving if they’ve made up their minds to do so. Leave the DUI limit at 0.08 BAC and focus law enforcement activity on removing high-BAC drivers from the road and putting them into treatment programs that address the core issue: their problem drinking. More highway tragedies will be prevented and fewer innocent lives will be turned upside down.