This week National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) voted in favor of issuing a set of recommendations to states including lowering the legal blood-alcohol content level for driving from .08 to .05. If adopted, the recommendation would make anyone driving with a percentage of alcohol in their blood of more than .05 guilty of DUI and subject to arrest and prosecution. Although the NTSB says this measure could cut the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths by 8% from their current number of 10,000, major lobbying groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and restaurant trade groups are not supporting the initiative. They believe it targets social drinkers instead of the true culprits: repeat offenders and heavy drinkers. Some have shifted their focus to a new problem, drivers distracted by texting.
With the help of groups such as MADD, the NTSB has produced great improvements in safety such as cutting the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths in half from 30 years ago, when the BAC level was at .15. Because the NTSB is an investigative agency that advocates on behalf of safety issues, it has no legal authority to implement its latest recommendations. Instead, it relies on individual states to accept its recommendations.
Relying on states makes the process of increasing road safety a very difficult and long one. The last move from a .10 to .08 BAC limit took 21 years for each state to implement. In fact, it took President Bill Clinton signing a law restricting highway construction money from states who did not change their laws in order for the new limit to be adopted by all the states. However, the U.S. is still behind the standard in most of the industrialized world of 0.05%.
The NTSB's recommendation is data driven. When Australia went from a .08 to .05 policy it saw a drop in traffic deaths of 5-18% in different provinces. The NTSB reports that a .05 BAC increases the risk of having an accident by 39%, and a .08 BAC by more than 100%.
But lobbyists such as the American Beverage Institute question the validity of the NTSB statistics, and the American Beer Institute added: "This recommendation is ludicrous … Moving from 0.08 to 0.05 would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior … Further restricting the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to stop hardcore drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel."
While opposition from those restaurant groups is to be expected, Mothers Against Drunk Driving surprisingly announced that it was "neutral" on the recommendation. An MADD spokesperson said the NTSB was "trying to focus on a group of people who are more social drinkers, who haven't been targeted in a while." The spokesperson added that MADD supported other NTSB recommendations including the installation of a breathalyzer interlock for all those with past convictions, which would prevent the vehicle from starting without an alcohol test, focusing on heavy drinkers and repeat offenders.
Many critics believe that resources would be better spent preventing texting while driving with campaigns such as AT&T's "It Can Wait" ads. Texting while driving causes 1.6 million accidents per year, and is responsible for 11 teen deaths every day. It is the number one distraction reported by teen driving, causing similar effects to driving after four beers. Texting while driving, however, often comes with no more than a fine.
Given the phenomenon of legislative inertia and the neutral stance of MADD, the NTSB recommendation to lower the legal BAC level is unlikely to be adopted anytime soon. However, advocates of increased regulation are beginning to look towards preventing distractions caused by texting as equally or more effective than the fight against drunk driving.