Should We Lower BAC for Drunk Driving in Maryland?

Today, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said we should lower the blood-alcohol limit from .08, the current standard, to .05. The NTSB argues that the U.S. is too lenient when it comes to drunk driving and wants the U.S. to adopt the same standard as other countries, such as those in Europe.

Even "just a little" drinking and driving leads to deaths in Maryland

Even “just a little” drinking and driving leads to deaths in Maryland

Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tells us what we have known for a zillion years: alcohol plays a role in nearly one-third of traffic deaths in America.

But the NTSB tells us something incredibly new, providing data that the risk of a crash is reduced by half when the definition of “drunk driving” encompasses the .05 standard instead of the .08 standard. Depending on body size, the difference between .08 and .05 is one to two drinks over a three-hour time span.

It is hard not to cut to the chase on this. There are 12,000 deaths, give or take, a year in this country from drunk driving. Now imagine in your mind 6,000 people in a room that could have been saved by everyone having fewer drinks. Then imagine everyone who loved those 6,000 people in a room. I have to think the NTSB is on the right side of history on this.

(I just pulled a little trick there. The NTSB says “car crashes” and I turned that into “car crash fatalities.” But if you reduce that 6,000 to 3,000, does it detract from the point I’m making?)

We had been reducing drunk driving deaths for a while, but we have hit a stopping point. We either need to increase penalties or reduce the BAC. Those, it seems to me, are the two weapons we have in our arsenal to get past the bottleneck.

This idea that a few drinks do not impact driving is crazy.  Play a video game and try to get your high score on two beers.  You just can’t do it.  Alcohol is dose responsive.  Every little bit makes you a little less competent to drive.

By the way, if we are trying to sell the .05 BAC, we have to drop the “this is how they do it in Europe” speech. I’m receptive to it because I think what other countries are doing gives us some information on what works and what does not. But few people really want to hear it.  Let’s just say this is how we should do to it in ‘Merica.

In fact, one way to pitch this is to point out to the general public that reducing the blood-alcohol limit will put hundreds of personal injury lawyers out of work. You are talking about reducing the number of accidents by one-sixth. This would be a serious economic blow to me. Let’s do it anyway, Maryland.

While the NTSB is not allowed to make or change laws, it can make recommendations to federal administrative agencies and states. More importantly, people are writing and blogging about it and it gets the conversation going.

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  • Zeb Snyder

    I’m all for reducing accident fatalities, but I’m hesitant to support dropping the legal limit to .05, as I’m skeptical that driving with a BAC of .05 carries a significant risk of causing injury. Intuitively that just doesn’t sound right.

    According to some MADD statistics from 2002 (haven’t looked for more recent data), Americans surveyed reported driving 159 million trips with alcohol in their system at some level. Let’s say that’s still a valid number. If 12,000 people die from DUI accidents out of those 159 million trips, that’s a fairly low fatality rate, and the risk of killing someone on any one trip is corresponding low. It should be even lower when you look at only trips taken with .05-.08 BAC (since the vast majority of fatalities are caused by much higher BACs), and lower still if you just look at .05-.06 BAC. (See this post on my favorite criminal defense blog for more:

    That’s not to say that driving after drinking is to be encouraged, but at some low level the risk tapers off significantly and is no more harmful (and could be less harmful) than driving while talking on a hands-free device, listening to a great song, thinking about work, or driving after a prolonged 4am feeding has left you feeling sleep-deprived, which I may or may not have done today.

    Perhaps the limit needs to be lower, but .05 sounds severely low, and unlikely to save many lives, while on the flip-side subjecting an awful lot more people to criminal prosecution, assuming we don’t just assign administrative penalties to these lower level offenses.

    I’d also add that it is probably a lot less of a hassle to lose your license in much of Europe than it is here, given the comparatively excellent and comprehensive public transportation available in much of Europe.

    (Sorry for the lengthy rant.)

  • Vern Dennis

    I agree about the lowering of the BAC being a good idea but “In fact, one way to pitch this is to point out to the general public that reducing the blood-alcohol limit will put hundreds of personal injury lawyers out of work.” is a specious argument. There is always another target, legimate or not to pursue. I doubt you’d lose a dime, Ron

  • I posted on this .I put the link in for my web site and I think we should try for zero tolerance . and we really have to find a texting application and require it for under 19
    .05 has been effective in many other countries

  • Increase penalties. Make it to where people don’t want to be in that situation because they know the penalty is devastating. I believe that’s one of the best fixes, but hard to change of course. Then it wouldn’t put you out of work, maybe.

  • I think that .05 is a little drastic. I don’t think there is good scientific evidence that having one drink (which is basically what we’re saying) and getting behind the wheel causes significant enough impairment to warrant criminal punishment. I do think that the “deterrence” effect of knowing you could be DUI after just one drink may very well lower the rate of persons driving under the influence which, as you argue Ron, would definitely be beneficial. We all know, though, that people will continue to drink and drive as long as there are alcoholic drinks and motor vehicles.

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