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 with drunk driving and wants the U.S. to adopt the same standard as other countries, such as those in Europe.
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 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 minor 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 affect 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.
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 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.