A recent poll from the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute finds that 60 percent of Texans support lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit for driving from the nationally recognized level of 0.08 to 0.05 BAC.
This considerable support in the state behind .05 is not surprising considering proponents of the idea have masterfully spun the policy as “tough on drunk driving,” when in reality, it’s anything but. Instead of targeting truly dangerous and legitimately drunk drivers with available traffic safety resources, lowering the legal limit will only subject moderate and responsible social drinkers to the stiff penalties of a DWI—including thousands of dollars in fines, hiked insurance fees and the social stigma of being labeled a drunk driver.
Contrary to the narrative pushed by .05 supporters, it takes very little alcohol to reach a 0.05 BAC. A 120-pound woman can hit that level after consuming little more than a single drink.
In fact, it’s been proven that a driver is more impaired talking on a hands free cellphone—what society deems to be responsible cellphone use—than someone at 0.05 BAC. And according to research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drivers who are simply over the age of 65 are more impaired than someone at 0.05 BAC. Therefore, while impairment may be measurable at 0.05, it’s not meaningful and shouldn’t be the basis of major legal and financial consequences.
A group made up of law enforcement officials and members of the Utah media recently examined impairment at this level firsthand—using the exercise to prepare for Utah’s first-in-the-nation .05 law set to go into effect in December.
After consuming various forms of alcohol to reach a 0.05 BAC, officers from the Unified Police Department administered field sobriety tests to measure impairment. The results were predictable. All three eligible participants—whose breath tests confirmed they had achieved a BAC level of .05 or slightly above—passed the sobriety test and would not have been considered too impaired to drive.
The results of this experiment are backed by government data showing where the real drunk driving problem exists and it isn’t with someone who enjoys a drink or two with dinner.
According to the most recent NHTSA data, the vast majority of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in Texas involve someone at 0.15 BAC or above. And the average BAC of a drunk driver involved in a fatal crash is 0.18—more than twice the current legal limit of 0.08.
These are the drivers that policymakers need to target—perhaps with increased enforcement of in-vehicle breathalyzer laws or strengthened 24/7 sobriety programs that target the root of problem drinking, rather than its repercussions.
While Utah will be the first state in the U.S. to experiment with a .05 policy, a number of foreign countries have already implemented a lower legal limit. Predictably, the impacts on traffic safety have been questionable at best.
According to a recent report analyzing changes in traffic fatalities since Scotland’s .05 law went into effect in 2014, the policy has had little measurable impact on road safety.
Furthermore, many foreign countries that have implemented .05 laws also launched major public awareness campaigns and passed forced random breath test laws—which would be unconstitutional in the U.S.—in parallel with the lower limit. Thus, it’s impossible to parse causal relationships between any single one of these factors and increased traffic safety.
With limited information, a 0.05 legal limit may sound appealing on paper, but when all the facts are known, it’s clear the policy will do little to save lives. Once this is understood, support behind .05 in Texas should dissipate.
Jackson Shedelbower is the communications director of the American Beverage Institute.