December 24, 2014

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Recommends That All States Lower the Per Se DUI Legal Limit From 0.08% BAC to 0.05%

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The motivation for the change is to reduce the number of road deaths caused by drinking and driving. According to NTSB estimates, drunk driving accounts for a third of all road deaths.

NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman said before a vote by the panel on a staff report, "This is critical because impaired driving remains one of the biggest killers in the United States."

Some of the more recent actions that have reduced drinking related deaths are federal and state policies, tougher law enforcement, and stepped up national advocacy. The NTSB staff report estimates, lowering the per se BAC for drinking and driving to .05% would save 500-800 lives annually. In the last 30 years, 440,000 lives have been lost in the United States due to drinking and driving.

Although the individual per se BAC limits are set by individual states, the federal government can be very persuasive convincing states to lower their BAC limit. For instance, the federal government can require such laws before dispersing highway funds.

Not all groups approved of the measure, most notably the American Beverage Institute (ABI). Sarah Longwell, managing director, stated the measure was "ludicrous" and "would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior." Her position is that the NTSB should focus on drivers with higher BAC percentages.

Interestingly, Ms. Longwell refers to MADD as "anti-alcohol activists" and questions whether the science has changed from 10 years ago, when MADD pushed for the .10% BAC standard. This question was not answered, nor was the NTSB number that the move will save 440,000 lives a year explained.

The two positions, between the NTSB and ABI, lacks firm numbers for either of their positions. What is missing is a study that measures the BAC for impaired drivers who were responsible for road collisions resulting in death. The study must be that specific- often when looking at the raw data of studies we find that the stated conclusion does not match the underlying data.

The NTSB also pushed for states to act more proactively in confiscating drivers licenses, installing IIDs for first time offenders, and using "passive alcohol sensors" that can measure alcohol in the air during a traffic stop.

The motivation behind the law is clear- to end drunk driving deaths. However, it is unclear whether the law matches the motivation. That is, without firm data indicating the number of deaths associated with impaired drivers at a certain BAC, then it is a leap of faith, and not data, that justifies lowering the per se limit to save lives.

However, the ABI, and other organizations involved in the hospitality industry, have an interest in keeping patrons comfortable having a drink or two with their meals. Otherwise, they may be too concerned with not creating a criminal record than to have a drink or two.

Mental affects from alcohol affect a person's decision making, including ordering dessert, for instance. From there, the patron may leave a bigger tip, or have one last over-priced after dinner drink. I suppose the perfect per se BAC limit is one which allows for impairment by over-priced alcohol, but does not affect their ability to avoid a church bus on the way home.

The problem with reasonable, scientifically based alcohol legislation is that there is a lot of power in the illogical, emotionally based impacts of drinking and driving victims. The NTSB chose Tuesday, today, to announce the legislation as the 25th Anniversary of the Carrollton Kentucky bus collision which resulted in the deaths of 27 people and 34 more were injured. The bus, which was a modified tour bus from an old school bus, contained members of the Assembly of God church on their way to Kings Island theme park. It is, undeniably, a tragedy.

Careful arguments must be made as the battleground is littered with emotional landmines. I propose that the proper change to save lives does not involve reducing the per se limit of 0.08%, but education to help people understand exactly what it is to be 0.08% BAC, or even a 0.04% BAC. Because regardless of the per se law in 1988, the impaired driver in the Carrollton collision was 0.24% BAC, and a 0.15%, 0.10%, 0.08% or even 0.05% per se law wouldn't have made a lick of difference to those that survived the crash, but were killed by the resulting fire that engulfed the interior of the bus.


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The acronyms DUI, DWI, OMVI and OVI all refer to the same thing: operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The most commonly used terms are DUI, an acronym for Driving Under the Influence, and DWI, an acronym for Driving While Impaired.
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