I don’t usually pen back-to-back columns on the same subject matter, but a response op-ed co-authored by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member, Jennifer Homendy, leaves me little choice on a subject of drinking and driving. Her support for jailing more people for DWI by lowering the legal blood-alcohol content (BAC) arrest threshold from 0.08 to 0.05 is based more on politics than science.
Ms. Homendy claimed that I “mischaracterized” the research of a Mr. James Fell — who concluded 1,790 lives would be saved annually (I love those exact projections) if every state in the United States were to adopt .05 laws. Apparently, I need to provide more context and specifics.
Not any of the 37 studies examined in the Fell report satisfies all three of the basic and essential features of credible and reliable research — including the use of data from before and after a policy change, employment of control groups and recognition of larger trends prior to the policy intervention. And there are other failings too extensive to list in this piece. Of course, given Mr. Fell’s long anti-alcohol history it’s no surprise that he shoehorned all these unrelated studies into one. The real surprise is that any part of our government would cite it.
Research and academic inquiry aside, lowering the legal limit to .05 fails to hold up when confronted with a filter of common sense. Ms. Homendy favorably mentions low BAC arrest levels in other countries. Most countries with these laws couple their legal limit with a lower drinking age — some as low as 16 years old. Ms. Homendy forgot to mention that point when she relies on foreign precedent. Is it a possibility that countries establish a lower alcohol limit as a trade-off for a youth drinking culture?
Another failure of comparison — many foreign countries also perform random breath testing with .05 limits. That policy would violate constitutional protections in the United States.
The available evidence from university testing indicates that someone registering at the existing .08 standard has equal impairment to that of a driver speaking on a hands-free cell phone. However, the difference in penalties for talking and driving versus drinking and driving is stark. Being one sip over the .08 limit in most states will land you in jail. However, equally impaired drivers talking on a cell call gets you a fine equal to a parking ticket. When supporting .05 the NTSB missed the opportunity to support the concept of proportionality in assessing punishments and “crimes.”
And then there is the unmentioned issue of auto manufacturers celebrating speed in TV car commercials. Apparently, these ads have yet to hit the NTSB radar despite speeding being a major traffic safety problem. The NTSB web site is silent on those speed promotions.
The alcohol hysteria in our government extends beyond these BAC arrest issues. Consider that an adult male drinking a beer while driving home is considered de facto dangerous. It is not the act of “drinking and driving” that is problematic as a soft drink would be acceptable. And the consumption of one beer would not violate the .08 standard (and for most people would not exceed .05). Why then is it considered a serious traffic offense to drink that one beer and drive? Hint: It is no more a science-driven argument than the one NTSB relies on for their .05 jihad.
The .05 supporters in the United States — chiefly the NTSB — lack sound and data-driven support when arguing that we should label currently acknowledged social drinkers as drunk drivers. Their emotionally charged arguments are suspect of being more anti-alcohol based than pro-road safety. Were they otherwise NTSB would be writing op-eds that promoted the arrest and jailing of drivers on their phones.
Richard Berman is the executive director of the American Beverage Institute.