The Drunk-Driving Debate: .05 versus .08

Lowering blood-alcohol limits to .05 reduces accidents — but does it unfairly target moderate drinkers? Get the facts behind the drunk-driving debate.

Recently, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended a new definition for drunk driving. They propose changing the blood-alcohol-content (BAC) level so that drivers would be considered legally impaired at .05, down from the current BAC level of .08.

Now, there’s no denying drunk driving is a serious issue. In 2011 alone, one-third of all traffic deaths in the U.S. were alcohol-related. This is important to keep in mind during the summertime, with its beach parties, barbecues, and long weekends, especially since our biggest national holiday, July 4, is also the deadliest day of the year on our roads.

So should we expect a move to .05 percent any time soon? And is it the right thing to do? Let’s check out both sides of the subject.

Arguments in favor of stricter drunk-driving standards

The risk of a crash at .05 percent is about half as much as at .08 percent, according to the NTSB. More than 100 countries have set drunk-driving levels at .05 percent, including Australia and most of the nations in Europe and South America. (The U.S. is one of the few developed countries that haven’t.) Statistics show that it works: when Australia dropped its BAC level from .08 to .05, traffic fatalities dropped as well (between 5 and 18 percent, depending on the province). And after implementing the new stricter standard, the EU reported a 50 percent reduction in drunk-driving fatalities.

If the .05 level becomes the new standard in the U.S., traffic fatalities will almost certainly decrease, particularly among young drivers. According to a recent study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency, 34 percent of drivers between the ages of 21 and 24 that were involved in fatal collisions had BAC levels of .08 or higher — and a lack of experience makes any level of impairment that much more dangerous.

Based on these numbers, adopting a .05 percent BAC is a no-brainer. Right?

Arguments against stricter standards

Well, opponents think it would unfairly punish responsible behavior without addressing the real issue. Their main argument: it doesn’t take much alcohol to get to .05. A woman weighing under 120 pounds, for example, can be at .05 after one drink, while a 160-pound man would after 2 drinks. Critics say the new NTSB recommendation would make having a glass of wine with dinner a criminal offense.

They further contend that moderate drinkers aren’t the problem and that the real danger comes from seriously intoxicated drivers. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency study, 70 percent of drunk-driving fatalities are caused by drivers with BAC levels of .15 or higher. Opponents say it would be better to focus on high-BAC drivers and repeat offenders.

Besides that, the last time the BAC standard was changed in the U.S. (from .10 to .08 percent), it took 21 years for all the states to get on board, and pushback against the new recommendation has already begun.

Technology to the rescue?

Alcohol impairs judgment, including the ability to judge just how impaired you are. And the same amount of alcohol can affect various people differently, depending on their height, weight, gender, how quickly they drink, and their tolerance levels.

Along with the .05 BAC, the NTSB has urged states to more strictly enforce laws requiring convicted drivers to install ignition interlock devices in their cars (to use the device, drivers must breathe into a tube, similar to a police breathalyzer). They’ve also called on the auto industry to research technology that lets vehicles automatically detect whether a driver has an unsafe BAC. In both cases, impaired drivers would be unable to start their cars.

It’s also possible to test your BAC level before you reach your car. A trio of Israeli entrepreneurs recently introduced Alcohoot, a breathalyzer that attaches to your smartphone. This sleek-looking device (currently available in beta) uses fuel-cell sensors to achieve police-grade accuracy. A companion app then logs your blood alcohol level and provides contact information for cabs and nearby restaurants, should you need it.

These technologies can help social drinkers make wiser decisions and even take the decision out of the drinker’s hands altogether. But the only surefire way to avoid driving drunk is not to imbibe at all.

What are your thoughts?

Is the .05 percent BAC level a needless precaution, or do the numbers speak for themselves? Weigh in below!

Related links

The Science of Drunk Driving

Top 5 Traits of a Designated Driver

The Great Marijuana Myth

10 Responses to “The Drunk-Driving Debate: .05 versus .08”

  1. Thomas
    June 3, 2013 #

    Realize that in most other countries there is an alternative to NOT drinking and driving such as trains and after hours/late night buses. In most of the US we are "forced" to either take an expensive cab or drive ourselves home after drinking. In most of Europe we could simply have taken the train home. I am curious what the drinking and driving rates are in cities such as San Francisco / New York Versus places as South Florida and Southern California with little public transportation. I am also curios of alternative transportation modes such as UBER or Sidecar will decrease drunk driving.

    • A Train
      June 4, 2013 #

      Great point of view Thomas. I wanna know what that data would reveal, too.

    • jack sprat
      June 27, 2013 #

      Thanks for doing the work for me.

    • Stephen
      October 22, 2013 #

      it's called get a designated driver. if you have to drive your buddies home for one night, suck it up, if not and u absolutley have to be drunk then there's a program to help you with that; alcoholics annonymous

  2. Howard
    June 25, 2013 #

    Do not drink and drive, period. If you do, get a trusted designated driver or set aside money for a cab.
    Also, most people who have 1 to 3 drinks and stop, which is unlikely, could still blow .05+ 6to8 hours later. It takes the average persons liver 8 hours to metabolize even minimal amounts of booze. Food
    consumption has little effect, alcohol goes straight thru to the small intestine and is in the blood stream within 20 minutes or less. Many states are also implementing liability laws that can go clear back to party hosts or "providers" of any type. Not just bar owners or bartenders. ESPECIALLY when minors are involved, whether or not they are drivers or passengers. Think First. Best bet go to a M.A.D,D. meeting.

  3. Hudson
    September 6, 2013 #

    In Brazil, you will be fined over R$: 1915,00 (about US$ 826,50) if you have anything between 0.1 and 0.3. Over 0.3 you are fined, your car gets impounded, arrested, and, if convicted, you'll get from six months to 3 years of jail time and you have your right to drive suspended. It means that you will have to take the complete reeducational course to get your driver's license again. Not that this worries me, I always have a designated driver…

  4. kelly
    February 1, 2014 #

    Many good points to both sides of the argument, but you had me at "having a glass of wine with dinner would now be a criminal offense. " I would like to see a breathalyzer built in to all automobiles, as much a standard safety feature as a seatbelt.

    • jay lunow
      September 1, 2014 #

      That's right. In the name of reducing fatalities we have federally mandated airbags, seatbelts, tire pressure monitoring systems(explorer fiasco), stability control and impact standards. If local government didnt make so much money handing out dui's like christmas presents there would have been breathalyzers in every car, truck, and semi twenty years ago.

  5. Bill
    March 2, 2014 #

    Obviously all common-sense folks are all for eliminating drunk driving. But as the explanation: "a glass of wine at dinner would now be a criminal offense" attests, the move to .05 from .08 is not intended to create safer driving. It's intent is to create more criminals out of the law-abiding public, in order to yet further increase tax revenues to the law enforcement and incarceration communities, and increase sales for all the businesses that supply them. Since drunk driving is far less of a problem than it used to be, police need something to do. What better way to solve this than to create more criminals? Wake up America.

  6. Jeff
    August 4, 2014 #

    I want to see a breakdown of BAC and number and severity of crashes and fatalities per level of intoxication. most I have seen are in the .20 and higher range. I can't think of one in the low .10 range, defiantly not saying there aren't. An argument based on a graph instead of a couple of vague statistics and a lot of emotions would be refreshing. BTW I knew too many victims or friends of murdered by drunk drivers. I just say don't throw the book at a first time offender blowing a .09 and then let a chronic offender walk (drive on) the streets.

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