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Federal Safety Board Considers Lowering of Legal Limit for Drunken Driving

Wow, this could be a real shock to those who like to have a couple of drinks before driving home after work. It’s possible the legal blood-alcohol limit could be reduced from .08 to .05. That would be at least a one-drink difference for many people and could mean the difference between being arrested or not.

I have mixed feelings about such a change. It wouldn’t affect me personally because I don’t drink, but many of my friends and family do. There’s no question that a blood-alcohol level below .08 does make some drivers less able to drive safely. On the other hand, this new limit would be getting pretty close to telling people they just cannot drink at all if they’re going to drive. There’s a balance in there somewhere, and I don’t know where it is. I do know this would be bad news for bars and very good news for criminal defense lawyers!

That change is a new recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board. The details are contained in an article from the New York Times yesterday. Here are excerpts:

Thousands of people are killed or injured every year by drivers who have been drinking but are not legally drunk and have a reduced ability to see, make decisions or operate a vehicle, the National Transportation Safety Board has said. The board met recently to consider recommending that the states reduce the allowable blood-alcohol concentration by more than a third, to 0.05 percent from 0.08 percent, the national standard that was established a decade ago at the instigation of Congress.

The 0.05 percent standard is mostly focused on social and casual drinkers, but researchers hope it will reduce consumption among all drivers. Any recommendation made by the board would carry substantial influence.

Blood-alcohol concentration varies by body weight, gender, stomach contents and other factors, but generally speaking, a 180-pound man could consume four beers or glasses of wine in 90 minutes without reaching the current limit. At a limit of 0.05 percent, he could legally consume only three. A 130-pound woman could probably consume three drinks in 90 minutes and still be legal under the existing standard; if the limit were lowered, she could consume only two.

The board voted last year to recommend that anyone convicted of drunken driving be required to install a breathalyzer interlock in their car, which would prevent the vehicle from starting without an alcohol test, a strategy intended to combat repeat offenders. And the board favors research on built-in alcohol detectors for new cars, which could measure blood-alcohol content through a driver’s palms on the steering wheel or some other unobtrusive way. Those could be available as an option on new cars or could be universally required. Either would affect drinkers who have never been caught driving, who make up more than 90 percent of those involved in fatal crashes that are related to alcohol.

People with a blood-alcohol level of 0.05 percent are 38 percent more likely to be involved in a crash than those who have not been drinking, according to government statistics. People with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent are 169 percent more likely.

The standard in most of the industrialized world is 0.05 percent. All 50 states and the District of Columbia switched to 0.08 percent after President Bill Clinton signed a law in 2000 that withheld highway construction money from states that did not agree to that standard.

The rate of deaths from crashes where the driver is found to be legally drunk is about 30 percent of all fatalities now, down from about 50 percent when President Ronald Reagan first raised the issue as a national concern in 1982. (The number of deaths is down to about 10,000 a year from 21,000 over the same period.) Highway deaths are decreasing over all because of better designed cars, seat belt use and better highways.

The lower blood-alcohol recommendation would most likely face opposition from distillers, brewers, vintners, bars and restaurants, which could face a substantial loss of business.

Sarah Longwell, the managing director at the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association, called the idea “ludicrous.”

“Moving from .08 to .05 would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior,” she said. And “further restriction of moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to stop hard-core drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel,” she said.

If the board moves ahead, it will have the support of other advocates, but not Mothers Against Drunk Driving. That group said it favored many parts of the board’s agenda, including mandatory installation of the breathalyzer interlock for anyone convicted of driving drunk, research on the passive alcohol sensors and “administrative license revocation,” which gives police officers on the highway the authority to seize a driver’s license at the time of an arrest. Those show strong potential for reducing the death toll, said J.T. Griffin, a Washington representative of the group.

The discussion of changing the definition of drunk, he said, was the safety board “trying to focus on a group of people who are more social drinkers, who haven’t been targeted in a while.” MADD would not oppose the change, he said, but would pursue other remedies.

The 0.08 percent limit is one legal standard under which a driver can be convicted of driving under the influence and constitutes “per se” inebriation. Without a test, or even with a test with a lower result, a driver could still be convicted on the basis of other evidence, including the observations of a police officer and the results of a field sobriety test. But such convictions are rare.

Bob Kraft

I am a Dallas, Texas lawyer who has had the privilege of helping thousands of clients since 1971 in the areas of Personal Injury law and Social Security Disability.

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The title of this blog reflects my attitude toward those government agencies and insurance companies that routinely mistreat injured or disabled people. As a Dallas, Texas lawyer, I've spent more than 45 years trying to help those poor folk, and I have been frustrated daily by the actions of the people on the other side of their claims. (Sorry if I offended you...)

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