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!