Op-ed

Op-ed: Lower alcohol limit won’t address the real safety problems

By: Sarah Longwell

Utah state Rep. Norman Thurston plans to introduce a bill in the legislative session that will slash the legal blood-alcohol content (BAC) limit from .08 percent to .05 percent — which would make Utah the first and only state to have such a limit.

Thurston claims the .05 proposal is “all about safety,” but it looks more like it’s all about raising his profile. Only about one percent of traffic fatalities involve drivers with a BAC within the disputed interval of 0.05 and 0.08. In contrast, high-BAC and repeat offenders cause 70 percent of alcohol-related fatalities. Legislators and traffic safety officials should target these hardcore drunk drivers rather those having a brandy with dinner or a beer after a round of golf.

Not only would a .05 legal limit not reduce traffic fatalities, but it would make it unnecessarily inconvenient for anyone to enjoy a glass of their favorite beer, wine or spirit. A 120-pound woman reaches .05 with just a few sips more than a single drink, while a 150-pound man could pass the threshold after just two beers. For many, that means saying good-bye to having a drink with co-workers after leaving the office or splitting a bottle of wine with friends at dinner.

But Thurston argues that “impairment starts with the first drink.” His argument quickly falls apart, however, when it’s put into context. Many things — including listening to the radio, drinking coffee or even the manual shifting of gears — impair our driving ability to some negligible degree. Research shows that using a hands-free cellphone while driving is just as impairing as driving with a .08 BAC — with even greater impairment arising from texting and driving.

In fact, over 3,000 people are killed annually from distracted driving. And in Utah, specifically, almost triple the number of driving deaths occur from speeding than drunks on the road. You could save a lot of lives in Utah by lowering the speed limit to 35 miles per hour on every highway, but it likely won’t be a popular law.

Traffic laws need to take into account proportionality. Someone who has a beer with dinner should not be put in the same category as a hardcore drunk who decided to pound a fifth of whiskey before getting behind the wheel. We don’t treat those going five miles per hour over the speed limit the same as those going 25 over because we recognize that the latter poses a far greater risk to traffic safety. So too must we recognize proportionality when it comes to drinking.

Instead of embarking on a crusade that targets responsible drinkers who pose little danger to society, let’s worry about the high-risk drinkers who actually deserve the jail time and high court fees imposed on them.

Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) doesn’t support lowering the legal limit to .05. When the National Traffic Safety Board first pondered the idea in 2013, the activist group refused to back it. MADD’s founder, Candy Lightner, even called the idea “impractical” and “a waste of time.”

Lowering the legal limit to .05 is a distraction from the real threats on Utah’s roads: legitimately drunk, distracted and reckless drivers. Introducing a bill to lower the legal limit to .05 may score Thurston some easy political points, but it won’t save lives.

Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute.