Las Vegas Review-Journal 

Ghosts, goblins, witches and werewolves may be the main fears of trick-or-treaters, but responsible adults attending Halloween parties have their own fear to grapple with — the possibility that a single pumpkin beer or glass of spiked apple cider could land them behind bars.

Unlike goblins, however, a legal blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) limit low enough to criminalize a single drink is a very real threat. Just ask the scary activists at the National Transportation Safety Board who recommended that states reduce their BAC limits from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent or lower — a level many women can reach with a single drink.

The NTSB’s reasoning? Cutting the limit again — the last switch was from 0.1 to 0.08 — will supposedly cut alcohol-related traffic fatalities dramatically.

Lawmakers in a dozen states have already begun discussing new legislation to make the NTSB’s recommendation a reality.

The NTSB’s reasoning is impaired. In its deliberations on the issue, members ignored one all-important fact: A mere 1 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.

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 alcoholrelated fatalities. Similarly, researchers who studied Denmark’s 0.05 law did not find a decrease in alcoholrelated crashes in the first year after the law was adopted.

So where are the drunken drivers who cause fatalities? At the other end of the BAC spectrum, actually. The average BAC level of a drunken driver involved in a fatal accident is a whopping 0.16 percent — twice the current legal limit. In fact, 70 percent of drunken 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 even 0.00.

What can stop these highBAC and repeat offenders is ignition interlock technology — Breathalyzers that won’t allow the car to start if the driver is over a preset limit. Putting Breathalyzers in the cars of hard-core drunken 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 longterm behavior of hard-core offenders who oftentimes have alcohol abuse disorders.

These measures can actually make a dent in U.S. drunken 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 effect. On the contrary: It only turns responsible social drinkers into unwitting social pariahs.

The reason the United States continues to have a persistent drunken 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 hardcore drunken drivers who cause the vast majority of alcohol-related fatalities.

The public safety community told us back in the late 1990s that cutting the BAC threshold from 0.10 to 0.08 would save hundreds of lives annually. It hasn’t had a significant effect — drunken driving has been the cause of roughly one-third of traffic deaths for nearly 15 years, despite lowering the limit. There’s no reason to think that driving the BAC limit even lower would have a more dramatic effect.

— Sarah Longwell

Get ABI Email Updates

Sign up and get updates on the critical updates on alcohol policy that affect your business.