Research muddled at best about 0.05 BAC change

Over the weekend, the Chicago Tribune ran a front page story about the proposed change to reduce the “legal limit” blood alcohol level to drive to 0.05 (from the current 0.08).  As you can see from the article, not even MADD supports the change.

From the article:

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.”

Read the full story here: http://my.chicagotribune.com/#section/-1/article/p2p-77226096/

NTSB recommends lowering “legal limit” for DUIs to 0.05

From CNN.com:

Washington (CNN) — A decade-old benchmark for determining when a driver is legally drunk should be lowered in an effort to reduce alcohol-related car crashes that claim about 10,000 lives each year, U.S. safety investigators said on Tuesday.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all 50 states lower the threshold from 0.08 blood-alcohol content (BAC) to 0.05.

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

The board acknowledged that there was “no silver bullet,” but that more action is needed.

“This is critical because impaired driving remains one of the biggest killers in the United States,” NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman said ahead of a vote by the panel on a staff report.

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 stepped up national advocacy. But she said too many people are still dying on America’s roads in alcohol-related crashes.

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

“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?”

Under current law, a 180-pound male typically will hit the 0.08 threshold after four drinks over an hour, according to an online blood alcohol calculator published by the University of Oklahoma. That same person could reach the 0.05 threshold after two to three drinks over the same period, according to the calculator.

Many factors besides gender and weight influence a person’s blood alcohol content level. And many states outlaw lower levels of inebriation when behind the wheel.

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 are attributed to alcohol impairment, the NTSB said. But most of the decline in highway deaths occurred in the first decade.

“I think .05 is going to come. How long it takes to get there, we don’t know. But it will happen,” said the NTSB’s Robert Molloy, who helped guide the staff report.

For some, the vote struck close to home.

NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt noted that one of his relatives had been killed by a drunk driver, and another is serving a 15-year sentence in a related death.

Many of the recommendations “are going to be unpopular,” Sumwalt said. “But if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re not going to make any difference.”

The NTSB said even very low levels of alcohol impair drivers.

At 0.01 BAC, drivers in simulators demonstrate attention problems and lane deviations. At 0.02, they exhibit drowsiness, and at 0.04, vigilance problems…

My initial thoughts?  This would be an extreme change, infringing on our right to consume a moderate amount of alcohol.  I have no problem with prosecuting drunk drivers.  But this change would not be doing that.  It would be prosecuting people who drive after drinking moderate amounts of alcohol and are not impaired.  This is creeping Prohibition.  If this law passed, I wouldn’t recommend anyone getting behind the wheel of a car after having had any amount of alcohol.

What do you think?