Research suggests that lowering the legal limit of intoxication to 0.05 could save 500 to 1,000 lives a year.
But many safe-driving advocates are conspicuously silent on the issue of whether 0.05 is high enough impairment to merit criminal charges. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is standing down, as is Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White. The venerable Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which notes that it never takes formal positions on policy, said police will have trouble enforcing 0.05.
At the core of concerns about 0.05 is the tricky issue of when alcohol impairment becomes criminally negligent. How does slight alcohol impairment differ from impairment caused by drowsiness, cellphone use, medication, aging or other conditions? Is it reckless to get behind the wheel after two glasses of wine at a dinner party? A large beer at a Blackhawks game? A couple of cocktails at a reception?
Research on the topic is voluminous — and resembles a weaving car.
The National Sleep Foundation states that drowsiness is very similar to alcohol impairment and “can impair driving performance as much or more so than alcohol,” according to a report on the topic. Being sleepy can slow reaction times, limit vision and create lapses in judgment and delays in processing information, the foundation states.
“In other words,” the foundation reports, “driving sleepy is like driving drunk.”
A 2003 study by University of Utah showed that motorists who talk on cellphones — hands-free or not — are as impaired as drivers at a 0.08 BAC. Study participants drove slower and hit the brakes and accelerated later than those driving undistracted. Drunken drivers drove slower than cellphone users and undistracted drivers but more aggressively. They also followed more closely and hit their brakes more erratically, the research showed.
As to whether such a thing as responsible drinking and driving exists, some research shows that lane deviations and attention lapses occur at a BAC as low as 0.001. MADD and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommend no one drive after drinking.
But the American Beverage Institute, which represents restaurant and bar owners, calls the 0.05 recommendation an effort to “criminalize perfectly responsible behavior,” saying that less than 1 percent of traffic fatalities in the U.S. are caused by drivers with a BAC from 0.05 to 0.08. The organization points to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data showing that 70 percent of drunken driving deaths involve a driver with a BAC of 0.15 or higher…
Wider use of ignition interlocks is central to MADD’s efforts, too. J.T. Griffin, the organization’s senior vice president of public policy, said MADD supports 0.08 as the limit of legal intoxication in large part because research over 50 years shows definitively that everyone is seriously impaired at that level. Impairment below 0.08 becomes a little more uncertain.
Griffin said pushing to make 0.08 the law “was such a tough battle to fight. We sort of established it as the across-the-board level.”
MADD is taking a more practical approach — including recommending that ignition interlocks be mandatory for all DUI offenders — in continuing its fight against drunken driving. Twenty-one states and four counties in California require interlocks for all drunken driving offenders. In Illinois, first-time DUI offenders must obtain one if they want to drive.
“We’re doing a lot of really positive things,” Griffin said, “and we feel like we’ve got a lot of momentum. To shift to 0.05 really goes against what we’re doing.”
Like many, Griffin said impairment happens below 0.08, but “what that level is, I don’t really know.”