Letter to the Editor

Targeting the wrong drinkers

By Sarah Longwell

For most Americans, Memorial Day means one thing: Kicking off summer with burgers, brats, and maybe a couple beers. But thanks to the National Transportation Safety Board, that could all change—at least if you want to drive home after a Bar-B-Q.

Last week, the NTSB unanimously recommended that states lower their legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels from 0.08 to 0.05 percent or lower — a level many women can reach with a single drink. Its reasoning? Cutting the limit again — the last switch was from 0.1 to 0.08 — will supposedly cut alcohol-related traffic fatalities dramatically.

The NTSB’s reasoning is impaired. In its deliberations on the issue, members ignored one all-important fact: Less than one percent of all traffic fatalities involve a driver with a BAC level of 0.05 to 0.08, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Worldwide experience

This isn’t just an American phenomenon, either. A study of South Australia after the state lowered its BAC limit from 0.08 to 0.05 found that the lower limit did not significantly affect the number of alcohol related fatalities. Similarly, researchers who studied Denmark’s 0.05 law did not find a decrease in alcohol-related crashes in the first year after the law was adopted.

So where are the drunk drivers who cause fatalities? At the other end of the BAC spectrum, actually. The average BAC level of a drunk driver involved in a fatal accident is a whopping 0.16 percent—twice the current legal limit. In fact, 70 percent of drunk driving deaths involve a driver with a BAC of 0.15 or higher.

Slashing the limit to 0.05 will do nothing to stop these drivers; they don’t care whether the legal limit is 0.08, 0.05, or zero.

What can stop these high-BAC and repeat offenders is ignition interlock technology—Breathalyzers that won’t allow the car to start if the driver is over a pre-set limit. Putting Breathalyzers in the cars of hard-core drunk drivers and leaving them on for as long as necessary is a great way to target this problem population. Also, expanding DUI courts—similar to drug courts—can help keep serial offenders from slipping through the cracks in the system. These courts also focus on treatment, which can change the long-term behavior of hard-core offenders who often times have alcohol abuse disorders.

Better targets

These measures can actually make a dent in U.S. drunk driving fatalities, as they target the offenders most likely to be involved in a fatal accident by stopping them from ever getting behind the wheel. Lowering the legal BAC limit to 0.05, however, will not have the same affect. On the contrary: It only turns responsible social drinkers into unwitting social pariahs.

The reason that the United States continues to have a persistent drunk driving problem isn’t because our legal BAC threshold is too high. It’s because too many of our policies focus on moderate social drinkers and fail to target the hard core drunk drivers who cause the vast majority of alcohol-related fatalities.

The public safety community told us back in the late ’90s that cutting the BAC threshold from 0.10 to 0.08 would save thousands of lives. It hasn’t. There’s no reason to think that driving the BAC limit even lower would have a more dramatic effect.

Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute in Washington, D.C., is a trade association representing individual and chain restaurants and on-premise retailers.