WHAT OTHERS SAY: Reducing the number needed for 'one too many'

Monday, May 20, 2013 | 1:59 p.m. CDT

When bundled with a host of other suggestions aimed at curbing drunk driving, the National Transportation Safety Board‘s proposal that state governments should reduce the allowable blood-alcohol concentration to 0.05 percent is reasonable.

If the country is serious about getting drunk drivers off the road, the board’s recommendations offer valid ways of trying to accomplish that goal. Lowering the benchmark for determining when a driver is legally drunk isn’t the only solution, but it would help.

Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairwoman of the board, said Tuesday that after a year of studying the problem, the NTSB concluded that bold steps are needed to reduce the nearly 10,000 deaths a year attributed to drunk drivers.

“This is critical because impaired driving remains one of the biggest killers in the United States,” Ms. Hersman said. “In the last 30 years, more than 440,000 people have perished in the country due to alcohol-impaired driving. What will be our legacy 30 years from now? If we don’t tackle alcohol-impaired driving now, when will we find the will to do so?”

The NTSB said that lowering the BAC rate from 0.08 percent to 0.05 would save about 500 to 800 lives a year. That’s the number of people killed by drivers whose blood alcohol content is within the legal range, but whose driving is still impaired, the board said.

Among other suggestions from the board that would help the problem is requiring everyone convicted of drunken driving to install a Breathalyzer interlock in their car. The device prevents the vehicle from starting if it detects unsafe concentrations of alcohol in the driver’s breath.

The board also recommended that states greatly expand laws allowing for “administrative license revocation,” which gives police officers on the highway the authority to confiscate a license from a driver who exceeds the BAC limit.

Among other suggestions: Increased use of high-visibility enforcement, greater targeting of repeat offenders and reinforcing the use and effectiveness of DWI courts.

The board also repeated its support of research on built-in alcohol detectors, which would measure BAC through a driver’s palms on the steering wheel or in some other passive manner. The goal of such devices would be to stop drinkers who have never been caught drunk driving. Research shows that this group accounts for more than 90 percent of people involved in fatal alcohol-related crashes.

When then-President Ronald Reagan raised the issue of drunken driving 30 years ago, about 50 percent of vehicle fatalities were tied to it. Now it’s about 30 percent.

And even though total highway fatalities have been decreasing since the mid-1990s — the result of such factors as greater seat belt use, better vehicle design and improved highways and signage — the death rate related to alcohol-impaired drivers has remained constant at about 30 percent, the NTSB report said.

Things didn’t change when President Bill Clinton signed a law in 2000 that withheld highway construction money from states that did not agree to the 0.08 BAC standard. The new level was adopted across the country.

The board said that more than 100 countries on six continents have set blood-alcohol content limits at 0.05 percent or lower. The NTSB said 0.05 is the point at which cognitive and visual functions begin to fade in most adults.

The board noted that the suggestion to lower the legal blood-alcohol content is intended to reduce drinking and driving among social drinkers as well as heavy drinkers.

The 0.05 limit means a 180-pound man probably could legally consume three beers or three glasses of wine in 90 minutes. A 130-pound woman likely would be able to consume two drinks in that time frame.

NTSB members said that making progress on the problem is a matter of political will. It will require turning aside opposition from such groups as the American Beverage Institute, which called the recommendation to lower the BAC level “ludicrous.”

The suggestion also has been criticized as a gift to the attorneys, prisons, driving-improvement classes, municipalities and court coffers that depend on the money generated by drunken drivers seeking to stay out of jail or keep their driver’s licenses, or both.

That criticism is valid. So is the complaint that the lower level would criminalize what is thought of as socially acceptable behavior. However, a national debate might help change attitudes so that any drinking and driving is seen as unacceptable.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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