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May 14, 2013

In praise of NTSB seeking to save more innocent lives with tougher DUI laws

I was very pleased to see the news today, like this report from CNN, concerning a new recommendation to lower the level at which a driver is to be considered over the limit.  Here are the details:

A common benchmark in the United States for determining when a driver is legally drunk is not doing enough to prevent alcohol-related crashes that kill about 10,000 people each year and should be made more restrictive, transportation safety investigators say.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended on Tuesday that all 50 states adopt a blood-alcohol content (BAC) cutoff of 0.05 compared to the 0.08 standard on the books today and used by law enforcement and the courts to prosecute drunk driving....

The idea for a tighter standard is part of a safety board initiative outlined in a staff report and approved by the panel to eventually eliminate drunk driving, which accounts for about a third of all road deaths in the United States.

Hersman said progress has been made over the years to reduce drunk driving, including a range of federal and state policies, tougher law enforcement, and stronger advocacy.  But she said too many people are still dying on America's roads.  The board acknowledged that there was "no silver bullet," but that more action is needed at the federal and state levels.

"In the last 30 years, more than 440,000 people have perished in this country due to alcohol-impaired driving. What will be our legacy 30 years from now?"  Hersman asked. "If we don't tackle alcohol-impaired driving now, when will we find the will to do so?"

Lowering the rate to 0.05 would save about 500 to 800 lives annually, the safety board said....

The NTSB investigates transportation accidents and advocates on safety issues.  It cannot impose its will through regulation and can only recommend changes to federal and state agencies or legislatures, including Congress.  But the independent agency is influential on matters of public safety and its decisions can spur action from like-minded legislators and transportation agencies nationwide.  States set their own BAC standards.

The board also recommended on Tuesday that states vastly expand laws allowing police to swiftly confiscate licenses from drivers who exceed the blood alcohol limits.  And it is pushing for laws requiring all first-time offenders to have ignition locking devices that prevent cars from starting until breath samples are analyzed.

In the early 1980s, when grass-roots safety groups brought attention to drunk driving, many states required a 0.15 BAC rate to demonstrated intoxication.  But over the next 24 years, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups pushed states to adopt the 0.08 BAC standard, the last state falling in line in 2004.

The number of alcohol-related highway fatalities, meanwhile, dropped from 20,000 in 1980 to 9,878 in 2011, the NTSB said. In recent years, about 31 percent of all fatal highway accidents were attributed to alcohol impairment, the NTSB said....

The NTSB cited research that showed most drivers experience a decline in both cognitive and visual functions with a BAC of 0.05.  Currently, more than 100 countries on six continents have BAC limits set at 0.05 or lower, the safety board said.  The NTSB has asked all 50 states to do the same.

A restaurant trade association, the American Beverage Institute, attacked the main recommendation, saying the average woman reaches 0.05 percent BAC after consuming one drink....  A beer industry trade group said it would examine NTSB's recommendation for lowering the blood-alcohol threshold. "However, we strongly encourage policymakers to direct their efforts where we know we can get results: by focusing on repeat offenders and increasing penalties on those with BAC of (0.15) or more," said Joe McClain, president of the Beer Institute....

The NTSB recommended last December that states require ignition interlocks for all DUI offenders and said states should improve interlock compliance.

I concur with the recommendation coming from the Beer Institute that states get tougher ASAP on repeat drunk drivers and those caught driving with high BACs.  But I think that should be done in addition to defining the legal limt for BAC lower, coupled with technological sanctions for first offenders.  Specifically, as I have often noted in prior posts, states that require ignition locks for convicted drunk drivers have seen a marked decline in highway fatalities. Unless and until someone can prove to me that tipsy driving is more valuable than innocent human lives, I will praise any and all efforts by NTSB and others to do everything reasonable to reduce the harms of drinking and driving.

Some related posts on sentencing drunk drivers and advocacy for ignition locks:

May 14, 2013 at 11:12 PM | Permalink


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My question would be, "what is the blood alcohol of the people causing these crashes?" The crashes I read about most are over 0.10. I'm afraid this won't save the lives that they think it will.It's just more ways to put more people in jail, raise insurance rates, and more money for the states.

Posted by: Jill | May 15, 2013 1:10:15 AM

Why not just make 0.0? At some point in time it gets ridiculous...what is the bar supposed to do, sell drinks by the teaspoon?

Posted by: Hey Ho | May 15, 2013 2:18:13 AM

"Lowering the rate to 0.05 would save about 500 to 800 lives annually, the safety board said".

"A common benchmark in the United States for determining when a driver is legally drunk is not doing enough to prevent alcohol-related crashes that kill about 10,000 people each year and should be made more restrictive, transportation safety investigators say." So this proposed solution would "at the most" alleviate 5-8% of the problem, but also cause more legal havoc.

This doesn't quite add up. How is the 10,000 number derived? Are these accident caused by people above the current limit of 0.08, or between 0.05 and 0.08?

The 800 pound unseen gorilla in the room is the insurance industry. The "pressure" often comes from insurance companies that want tighter restrictions as a sleight of hand to increase their profits without LOWERING rates. I am all for making roadways safer, as long as insurance companies are forced to also give up something rather than merely increasing their bottom line.

Posted by: albeed | May 15, 2013 8:20:41 AM

The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a car is a good guy with a car. According to the gun lobby, we should not have these types of laws because they do not prevent bad guys from breaking the law. So, no limit on alcohol levels, but when you kill or maim someone, you are liable.

Posted by: defendergirl | May 15, 2013 10:47:59 AM

Chairman Hersman's mode of argumentation (arguing for further policy change by throwing out a large aggregate number of total fatalities for the last 30 years when there were already a number of policy changes during that 30-year period as well as a dramatic drop in fatalities-per-year) suggests that she is not to be taken seriously.

The whole point of a per se BAC rule is to conveniently avoid the need for the government to provide any evidence whatsoever that the actual driver was actually impaired on the actual occasion as demonstrated by, e.g., driving in a reckless fashion. It seems that what you'd want to know is how many serious/fatal accidents at present are caused by drivers with <0.08 BAC who could not readily be prosecuted for any other offense based on evidence of their actual conduct.

Posted by: JWB | May 15, 2013 1:12:42 PM

albeed - Those were my thoughts exactly. What is the level of people involved in these crashes and someone is going to make money off of it. I would really like to see the data on this one.

Posted by: Jill | May 16, 2013 7:17:57 AM

In theory lowering the legal limit is a good idea but in reality the prosecutors are already overworked. In Volusia County they have around 2,000 DUI arrests per year and 12 prosecutors that handle misdemeanor cases. If every currently available trial date was used the misdemeanor prosecutors could handle 288 trials per year. Under Florida's impairment theory the state could theoretically convict anyone over .05% if they can prove impairment.

Posted by: Daytona DUI Lawyer | Jun 30, 2013 2:17:07 AM

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