National Academies Report: .05 Alcohol Limit Makes Good Sense

05-alcohol-limit-signDrunk driving is messy behavior governed by a neat and detailed set of laws. One of the best delineated aspects of DUI law is the legal limit for intoxication: .08 percent blood alcohol concentration (BAC). This is the standard across the US, though Utah will be lowering its number to .05 in about eleven months.

A report by a panel of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has some recommendations for states to adopt in order to curb drunk driving in this country. Most surprising, to some, is the recommendation that the legal limit for intoxication be lowered to .05 nationwide.

Why .08 in the First Place?

Those who grew up with the .08 limit burned into our superego – most of us – might think that there is some scientific weight behind this number. But like many things in law, it’s a compromise. Alcohol affects different people differently, depending on their size, weight, age, and constitution. Tiredness and the amount one has had to eat also come into play.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s states tended to put the legal intoxication limit at .15%, what today is classified as an “extreme” level. The idea was that you were okay to drive unless you were visibly drunk – at .15 a person slurs words and can stumble when the stand up at the bar.

By the 1980s many states had .10 as the legal limit, but in 1992 NHTSA recommended that .08 become the limit, and states were given incentives to adopt that limit. But even with those incentives, it took years to bring all the states into line: Delaware was the last, adopting the .08 standard in 2004.

 Is .08 a Magic Number?

While .08 is the US level, it’s by no means a world standard. Sweden and a number of other European countries use .02 as the limit, and others have .05. In developed countries, 08 is comparatively rare, though the UK (apart from Scotland) and Canada still have the .08 limit (Canada as a “warn range” of .05, which draws less severe penalties).

The reason for the discrepancy is disagreement over how impaired you can be and still be considered in control of your vehicle. In fact, there is good evidence that impairment begins at the first drink, and there is no level of alcohol that is completely safe for driving – any amount could slow your reactions if something unexpected came up on the road.

Will .05 Happen in the US?

A recommendation is one thing – adoption is another. Opinion is divided on whether it’s feasible to lower the national BAC limit for drunk driving. Some are concerned that the courts will be clogged with more DUI cases. The liquor lobby is already up in arms about Utah’s decision to lower its limits, claiming that will drive tourism away from the state. Naturally, bars and restaurants are concerned about their profits, though one has to question whether those concerns should be weighed against the human lives lost to drunk driving.

What should be kept in mind that, feasible or not, the .05 alcohol limit would save lives, just as the .08 limit did. Lowering the limit would cause more people to turn down an extra drink at dinner, and to round up a designated driver or avoid driving altogether on a night out. People in countries with lower BAC limits have managed to adapt their social life to the greater goal of preventing drunk driving collisions. Perhaps some more incentives from the government could make the .05 limit a reality. States might comply grudgingly at first, but would eventually see the new, lower death and injury rates as the norm, and would want to preserve it. That’s the point of DUI legislation in the first place.

Part II – Further Recommendations of the National Academies Panel (tomorrow’s post on The Clear Road).