America’s on the wrong end of DUI standards

The News TribuneMay 17, 2013 

The Washington Legislature has been wrestling lately with ways to bring down drunken driving fatalities. Now it has another option to look at.

The people charged with making the nation’s roads less deadly, the National Transportation Safety Board, called on states Tuesday to reduce the legal limit of blood alcohol from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent. There’ll be the usual complaints about nanny statism, but the board makes quite a case.

Start with the fact that the United States and Canada are virtually alone among the world’s developed countries – including Europe, Russia and nearly all of Asia — in permitting people to drive with up to 0.08 percent ethanol running through their brains.

According to the NTSB’s new report, the laws of more than 100 nations consider drivers intoxicated if they have 0.05 percent in their blood. Some forbid any level above 0.00.

Why? Because lower thresholds save lives.

The board cites many studies indicating that serious impairment begins well below 0.08. At 0.05, drivers – on average – are 38 percent more likely to cause crashes than if they drank nothing before they drove.

The “average” part is important. Some people have higher tolerances for alcohol, some lower. A safety rule should be calibrated to the drivers most – not least – likely to kill others.

Someone who does fine at 0.07 percent wouldn’t likely be nabbed in the first place, because officers must have probable cause — e.g., seeing the car swerving erratically — before they pull someone over on suspicion of DUI.

But 0.07 is a long way from safe for most drivers. The report found that someone driving with that much alcohol has twice the risk of crashing as a sober driver.

In the United States, unless you hang around with street gangs, you are far more likely to get killed by a drunk on the road than by a thug with a handgun. In any given year, the number of Americans killed by drunken drivers exceeds the combined U.S. military deaths in both the Iraq and Afghan wars since 2001.

There are arguments against the 0.05 percent standard, though many of them come from the restaurant and beverage industries, which have an obvious self-interest. One legitimate concern is that traffic cops might concentrate less on crazy-drunk drivers, the guys with double or triple the limit in their veins.

Pickled drivers indeed cause far more than their share of deaths — but social drinkers cause plenty of their own. In any case, cops aren’t dumb; they’re still going to focus on the most impaired motorists.

Yes, this would be a nanny state measure. So was the old 0.10 percent limit. So are speed limits, for that matter. But there’s no constitutional right to drive, let alone put every other driver on the road in danger of a deadly collision.

If it takes some nannyism to persuade people that alcohol and steering wheels don’t mix, so be it.

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