Why Does the NTSB Want to Lower our Driving Alcohol Limit?

lower-alcohol-limit-to-05Every year the National Transportation Safety Board puts out its wish list. Called the “Most Wanted” list, it lays out the changes that the agency says will save lives by making transportation safer.

There are recommendations for rail, air, and water transport. But as the report notes, 90 percent of transportation fatalities happen on our nation’s roads. And that is why the NTSB’s recommendations for ending substance impairment in transportation are vital reading.

Among the most controversial proposals is to lower the permissible blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level for driving:

“When it comes to alcohol use, we know that impairment begins before a person’s BAC reaches 0.08 percent, the current legal limit in the United States. In fact, by the time it reaches that level, the risk of a fatal crash has more than doubled. That is why states should lower BAC levels to 0.05 — or even lower.”

Four drinks will get the average 160-pound male to .08. For a 120-pound woman, it can be just two drinks.

In order to make sense of the NTSB’s statement, some questions need to be answered.

Why is the Current Alcohol Limit .08?

When breathalyzers first came into use in this country around 60 years ago, a BAC of .15 was used as the standard. At that level about a half pint of Jim Beam is in your blood. Vomiting, drowsiness, loss of visual and auditory perception are all present at this level. Thus, the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave the states incentive to bring that level down to .08. At that level, one’s coordination is impaired, and one’s driving skills are off.

Is .05 Too Low?

Some critics of the proposal think that .05 is impossibly puritanical. At that level , one’s judgment and attention are lessened, and controlling a vehicle is more difficult. It’s not as bad as .08, but there’s no doubt that if an unexpected situation arose, a driver with a .05 BAC would have a harder time reacting to it.

In other countries, .05 and even lower limits are common. Most European countries are .05, and a few, including Sweden and Luxembourg, use a limit of .02. So despite the outcries of the liquor and restaurant lobbies, and those who feel  that their right to move about freely after a party is being restricted, life does go on even when a higher BAC limit is imposed on motorists. In fact drivers in Paris, Berlin, Monte Carlo, and Amsterdam manage to keep their cities entertaining despite lower alcohol limits.

Just Who Are the NTSB?

ntsbThat was the question in the title, and it’s only fair we answer it. The NTSB was created in 1967 with the mission of making all transportation in the US safer. It exists outside of and independent of the Department of Transportation, so that it can investigate and report impartially about the country’s surface, air or water transport systems.

It’s worth noting that the NTSB can’t change laws – it can only make recommendations. However, those recommendations are made in good faith, and are worth heeding. Which means that as far as blood alcohol goes, it might be time to take it down a notch.