New data released by the federal government reveals drunk driving deaths fell by more than 5% in 2019. It’s welcome news and a trend that policymakers at the state and local levels should build on to save even more lives. Acknowledging last year’s unofficial motto, officials should “follow the science” to make it happen.
An original analysis of the government data by my organization, the American Beverage Institute, finds that two-thirds of alcohol-related traffic fatalities involve someone with a blood alcohol content of 0.15 or above. That’s nearly double the arrest level currently enforced in 49 states. This is not the couple that splits a bottle of wine at dinner or enjoys a cocktail after work. As with so many other products, there is a clear distinction between use and abuse.
The key to improving road safety is to use limited traffic safety resources to target product abusers. Government budgets have been stretched to the limit dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Officials need to get the most bang for every taxpayer buck. A good start would be to enforce laws that are already on the books better.
Priority No. 1 should be ensuring DWI offenders who are court-mandated to install an ignition interlock device, or dashboard breathalyzer, in their vehicle actually do so. Compliance rates are often alarmingly low — historically falling well under half in some cases. And considering nearly one-third of people convicted or arrested for drunk driving are repeat offenders, effective enforcement of existing targeted IID laws can prevent these crimes.
Police departments could more frequently employ saturation or roving patrols to remove alcohol abusers from behind the wheel. Unlike static sobriety checkpoints, which can easily be avoided and require extensive department resources, saturation patrols seek out dangerous drivers. Instituting 24/7 sobriety programs is a complementary approach that addresses the root cause of substance abuse. Frequent alcohol testing and modest punishments are leveraged to help participants reset lifestyle choices and avoid repeating past mistakes.
Puzzlingly, some state lawmakers are sidestepping these data-supported strategies in favor of pursuing in-vogue policies such as watering down the legal definition of “drunk.”
This year, legislation has already been introduced in New York, Hawaii, and Oregon to arbitrarily lower the legal BAC arrest level for driving by 40%, from 0.08 to 0.05 — a threshold some can cross after little more than a single drink. Relatively few accidents occur in this interval. This isn’t surprising considering that university research suggests a driver at 0.05 BAC is less impaired than when speaking on a hands-free cellphone.
Supporters of the 0.05 policy may point to Utah, which has been the lone state to adopt a lower legal limit, as a success story. But observers should be careful crediting the 0.05 law for recent traffic safety figures. Although drunk driving deaths did drop in Utah, South Dakota and Vermont experienced an even bigger decline. Fatalities in 28 other states also fell.
Similarly, no credence should be given to arguments that point to foreign countries with lower legal limits. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. If you live in France, for example, a 0.05 BAC arrest level is coupled with allowing 16-year-olds to drink. Meanwhile, the 21-year-old drinking age in the United States is among the highest in the world.
Drunk driving remains a problem that needs to be fully tackled in the U.S. State and local leaders should rely on the most recent statistics to guide policy that will build off past progress. As Dr. Anthony Fauci repeatedly suggests, “We need to follow the science.”
Jackson Shedelbower is the communications director of the American Beverage Institute, a national restaurant trade association in Washington, D.C.