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Drunk Driving Tactic Falls Flat: National board recommends lowering BAC level, support hard to find

December 13, 2013

Originally published May 28, 2013

Drunk driving kills about 10,000 Americans every year and public health and safety groups across the U.S. are always looking for new ways to keep people from operating motor vehicles after they've had too much to drink. But one recent suggestion received an unusual lack of support from several major public safety groups.

This month, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent federal agency that reviews travel safety issues, urged states to lower their legal limits for drunk driving from .08 percent blood alcohol content (BAC) to .05 percent, the first change to the law since the limit decreased from .10 percent to its current level nearly 15 years ago.

In a news conference discussing the recommendations, NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman said the goal is to eliminate alcohol-impaired driving by targeting drivers who drink but think they are not a danger.

"We know drivers are significantly impaired at .05. There is no debate about that," she said. Lowering the BAC limit "has the effect of everyone drinking less."

The agency coupled its recommendation for lower BAC limits with other suggestions such as requiring ignition locks for all drunk-driving offenders, increasing high-visibility enforcement and developing and deploying in-vehicle detection technology.

The reduced BAC recommendation made a splash but so far has failed to recruit many heavyweight supporters in the fight against drunk driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, declined to support the recommendation, joining other high-profile groups like the Governors Highway Safety Administration and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Critics of the recommendation say there is no evidence that lowering the BAC limit would have any effect on numbers of alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities. According to NHTSA data from 2010, about 32 percent of all car crash fatalities involved a driver whose BAC was over .08; 6 percent of fatalities involved a driver with a legal BAC between .01 and .07. Of the drivers with an over-the-limit BAC, more than two-thirds were well above the limit with a BAC of .15 or higher.

Hersman acknowledged that NTSB hadn't received resounding support for lowering BAC limits, but she emphasized the need for federal and state governments to do more to fight drunk driving in the U.S.

"We have not solved this problem," she said. "This is really about changing attitudes, changing culture, changing what's acceptable."

Georgia continues to try to lower numbers of alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes, which killed 277 people in the state in 2011. Katie Fallon, public information officer for the Governor's Office of Highway Safety (GOHS), said the NTSB recommendation is still something Georgia officials are "looking into," but they haven't yet made a decision about backing the proposal.

GOHS officials are tackling another alcohol impairment problem this summer -- boating under the influence (BUI). Georgia's new legal limit for the BAC of boaters took effect May 15, lowering the acceptable level from .10 to .08. This summer, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources will step up patrol and enforcement of the new BUI law on Georgia's lakes and rivers.

Gov. Nathan Deal said it makes sense to make the limits the same for drivers on the road or on the water.

"Someone who's had too much to drink has no business operating a boat. They put not only themselves but also innocent bystanders in mortal danger. We're sending a strong signal that boating under the influence will not be tolerated, and we'll work to prevent tragedies such as those we've seen in the past year," Deal said in a GOHS news release.

In 2012, five people died or were injured because of alcohol-impaired boaters on Georgia's waters.


The Georgia State Patrol is also stepping up vigilance through its annual summer traffic enforcement campaign, 100 Days of Summer HEAT, designed to reduce fatal crashes during the months from Memorial Day to Labor Day, a particularly dangerous time on the road.

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