The Cautionary Instruction: NTSB pushing for lower drunk driving threshold

Friday, 24 May 2013 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

20130324 beerglass photocom123212003 150One drink may soon be the limit if you’re driving. One standard drink, on average 14 grams of alcohol, will increase the average person’s blood-alcohol content (BAC) to roughly 0.02 percent to 0.05 percent. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wants .05 percent to be the legal limit.

Alcohol related crashes account for nearly a third of all U.S. traffic deaths and 146,000 injuries each year. Impaired driving fatalities have dropped sharply since the early 1980s; however, the death rate has remained flat between 30 and 32 percent since 1995.

A study recently cited by the NTSB found crash risk jumps with a BAC as low as 0.04 percent and the risk doubles at 0.08 percent. “More recent studies have shown that risk is significantly higher when a driver’s BAC is 0.05, and that crash risk climbs rapidly at BAC levels that exceed 0.08,” the report said.

As a result, the NTSB has recommended that states reduce the BAC that qualifies as drunken driving to 0.05 percent. "This is critical because impaired driving remains one of the biggest killers in the United States," said Deborah Hersman, the NTSB chairman. "To make a bold difference will require bold action. But it can be done."

In 1982, the NTSB recommended that states reduce the drunken-driving limit from 0.10% to 0.08%. Utah became the first state to lower its limit in 1983, but it was 21 years before all 50 states fell in line.

At the time, about half of all highway deaths involved alcohol-impaired driving and killed 21,113 people. The number of deaths has been cut in half since then. "We have made progress…but not nearly enough," Hersman said.

Not everyone is on board with the NTSB. Republicans in Congress have a message for those who want to dramatically lower the legal alcohol limit for drivers: Washington needs to butt out.

GOP leaders on Capitol Hill said the legal limit on BAC should be left to state legislatures. And while the NTSB’s recommendations are nonbinding, Republicans are warning the government against withholding federal funding to push states to lower the BAC threshold.

Tying federal highway dollars to states’ drunken driving laws is a bipartisan practice that goes back decades. The Reagan administration used the threat of lost money to get states to raise their drinking age to 21 in the 1980s, and Congress used similar leverage to prod states to reduce the BAC threshold to 0.08 percent.

Michigan is considering raising the BAC threshold. The state was one of the last to reduce the BAC threshold to .08, passing the law in 2003. The reduction had a sunset clause. The legal blood alcohol level will return to .10 on October 1 unless a new law is passed.

(Image: Getty Images)

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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