This week, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended that the United States should dramatically lower its legal threshold for the amount of alcohol that drivers may have in their bloodstreams, in an effort to address the nation’s “epidemic” levels of impaired driving. The government-backed board wants to drop the legal limit for drivers’ blood alcohol content (BAC), which is currently set at 0.08, down to 0.05. Board members say that adopting the new 0.05 rate could save about 500 to 800 lives each year.
The proposed change is part of a package of new initiatives that the safety board hopes will help eliminate drunk driving in the U.S., which currently accounts for a third of the county’s annual traffic fatalities. According to NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman, drunk driving has caused more than 440,000 preventable deaths over the past 30 years.
“Our goal is to get to zero deaths because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable,” Hersman explained. “Alcohol-impaired deaths are not accidents, they are crimes. They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will.” Ultimately, however, the safety board can’t actually enact its own regulations — it needs federal and state agencies, or legislators in Congress, to carry out its recommendations.
More than 100 countries around the world have already adopted laws that forbid an alcohol content of more than 0.05. And according to the NTSB, many of those countries saw a significant drop in their traffic deaths after lowering those thresholds. Nevertheless, it likely won’t be easy to get the necessary support to enact this particular proposal in the United States. A 0.05 rate would outlaw driving after moderate drinking — about one drink for a woman who weighs less than 120 pounds, and two for a 160-pound man — which is already leading to concerns over a so-called “one drink DUI.” The NTSB is certainly anticipating strong resistance from states.
“It was very difficult to get .08 in most states, so lowering it again won’t be popular,” Jonathan Adkins, an official with an organization representing state highway safety offices, told the Associated Press. In fact, it took nearly a quarter of a century to bring the current drunk driving standard to where it is today. In the early 1980s, many states had their legal BAC levels set at 0.15 — and only after 24 years of lobbying, largely spearheaded by the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, did every single state finally drop down to 0.08.
That’s partly because there are powerful industry giants standing in opposition to a lower BAC level. The NTSB’s recommendation was harshly criticized by the American Beverage Institute, an association representing thousands of restaurants, who called the idea “ludicrious.” According to a spokesperson for the trade group, “moving from 0.08 to 0.05 would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior” while doing nothing to stop “hard-core drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel.”
This isn’t the first time that business interests have conflicted with proposed measures to safeguard Americans’ health. The restaurant and fast food industries have also stood in opposition to other public health proposals, like limiting smoking in public establishments and placing regulations on the portion sizes for unhealthy food.
The NTSB chose to announce their new recommendations on the 25th anniversary of one of the United States’ deadliest traffic accidents. On May 14, 1988, an intoxicated man drove on the wrong side of a Kentucky highway and crashed into a bus, killing 27 people and injuring more than 30. Twenty four of the victims were children riding on the bus — members of a church youth group returning from a day trip to an amusement park.