Are Blood Alcohol Content Limits Too High?

  • Every year, around 10,000 Americans die in vehicle crashes which are blamed on alcohol. That stark statistic is behind a panel of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s recent series of recommendations to reduce that body count. The list includes propositions like much higher alcohol taxes, better enforcement on underage drinking and the renewed call for dropping the legal blood alcohol limit from 0.08 to 0.05.

     

    This debate has gained momentum since 0.08 became the national threshold for drunk driving in 2005 when Minnesota was the last to make the switch from 1.0 to 0.08. Every state has a 0.08 threshold today, though Utah will lower its to 0.05 in December 2018.

     

    To expand on the report’s recommendations, which were published in January 2018, some of the most aggressive remedies include:

     

    • Raise alcohol taxes in retail liquor outlets, thereby making alcohol purchases more expensive. The report suggests that this step alone could reduce alcohol-related traffic deaths by as much as 11 percent.
    • Reduce the number of days and/or hours during the day that retail alcohol outlets are open for business (or can sell alcohol).

     

    The National Academies’ panel suggests there is strong evidence that higher alcohol taxes reduce binge drinking and drunk driving deaths. And it mourns the fact that alcohol taxes across the nation have gradually declined in inflation-adjusted terms at both federal and state levels since 2010. In last December’s tax bill, the authors noted, Congress lowered federal alcohol excise taxes by about 16 percent. The council also opposes advertising bans and tax hikes on alcoholic products and claims that such moves "will have little or no impact on traffic safety."

     

    The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) backs the NASEM’s .05 recommendation “or even lower.” But that’s nothing new. The board has proposed it the last three years, though its pleas have fallen on deaf ears in state legislatures throughout the U.S.

     

    Even though there is mounting support for many of these proposals, there is also opposition.

    The Distilled Spirits Council advocates for the nation's alcoholic beverage makers. It said in a statement shortly after the report was released that it "strongly support[s] the strict enforcement of the 0.08 BAC level.” The council’s statement continued, “Reducing the BAC limit to .05 will do nothing to deter the behavior of repeat and high BAC drivers who represent the vast majority of drunk drivers on our nation's roads."

     

    A long-respected voice on the issue of drunk driving is also not in lock-step with NASEM’s recommendations. Candy Lightener, founder and former Executive Director of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, believes that .05 is impractical and has been against lowering the BAC that far since the debate began in 2010. Though MADD itself has yet to take a position on the issue, Lightener is an outspoken opponent of such measures.

     

    "I don't believe it is a practical long-term solution," she said. "You could go to 0.0 and that would save lives. You could go to a 40 mph speed limit and that would save lives, but you have to look at what's realistic.”

     

    "Years ago, I wasn't really hot for .08," said Lightner. "I didn't think it would be enforceable, that it would work. And I've heard [that .08] isn't being enforced. But we're at .08 now, so I'm going to say ‘leave it there.’"

     

    Lightener says that law enforcement officials she has spoken with say the lower limit would be "very hard to prosecute," and that trying to arrest everyone for .05 is impractical because “.05 drivers can pass a field sobriety test, even if they are legally impaired.”