May 15, 2013
NTSB Seeks Tougher Definition Of ‘Drunk Driving’
redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online
A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) panel recommended on Tuesday that states reduce the allowable blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) by more than one-third, to 0.05 percent from 0.08 percent, in an attempt to lessen the nearly 10,000 alcohol-related traffic deaths each year.
"Most Americans think that we've solved the problem of impaired driving, but in fact, it's still a national epidemic," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement on Tuesday.
The NTSB cited research that showed most drivers experience a decline in cognitive and visual functions with a BAC of 0.05.
The idea to tighten standards for blood alcohol content (BAC) is part of a broad safety board initiative outlined in a staff report and approved by the NTSB panel to ultimately attempt to eliminate drunk driving, which accounts for one-third of all US traffic deaths.
The NTSB suggests those deaths, along with another 170,000 annual alcohol-related injuries, cost $66 billion every year. The staff report also suggests that between 500 and 800 lives could be saved every year if the BAC standard is lowered.
Hersman said that while progress has been made in recent years to reduce drunk driving, too many people are still dying on America's roads. And while the safety board acknowledged that there is "no silver bullet," they say that more action is needed at the federal and state levels.
"In the last 30 years, more than 440,000 people have perished in this country due to alcohol-impaired driving. What will be our legacy 30 years from now?" Hersman asked rhetorically.
"If we don't tackle alcohol-impaired driving now, when will we find the will to do so?"
Under current law, a 180-pound male will typically reach the 0.08 BAC threshold after four drinks over the course of an hour, according to an online blood alcohol calculator published by the University of Oklahoma. That same person could reach the 0.05 threshold after just two to three drinks over the same period, according to the calculator.
In addition to gender and weight, other factors can influence a person's BAC, and many states already outlaw lower levels of inebriation for drivers.
Since the NTSB only investigates transportation accidents and advocates on safety issues, it cannot impose its recommendations through regulation. However, the independent agency is influential on matters of public safety, and its decisions can trigger action from legislators and transportation agencies nationwide, including the US Congress.
The NTSB board also recommended on Tuesday that states dramatically expand laws allowing police to quickly confiscate licenses from drivers who surpass blood alcohol limits or refuse to take a BAC test. It is also pushing for laws that require all first-time offenders to have ignition-locking devices that prevent cars from starting until breath samples are analyzed.
The issue of drunk driving began generating national attention during the early 1980s, when many states required a 0.15 BAC rate to demonstrate intoxication. In the following 24 years, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and other grassroots organizations pushed states to adopt the 0.08 BAC standard, a move that led to a drop in alcohol-related highway fatalities from 20,000 in 1980 to 9,878 in 2011, the NTSB said.
"I think .05 is going to come. How long it takes to get there, we don't know. But it will happen," said the NTSB's Robert Molloy, who helped guide the staff report.
More than 100 countries now have BAC limits set at 0.05 or lower, the NTSB said. The safety board has now asked all 50 states to do the same, and recommended that NHTSA, which oversees highway safety as a federal regulator and analyzes traffic crash data, provide financial incentives to carry out the changes.
But many of the panel´s recommendations will likely be unpopular, said NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt.
"But if we keep doing what we're doing, we're not going to make any difference."
The board also recommended on Tuesday a more widespread use of passive alcohol sensors, which police can use to detect the air during a traffic stop to determine the presence of alcohol. The sensors are capable of detecting alcohol even in cases where the driver has tried to mask his breath with gum or mints.
The American Beverage Institute called the NTSB's recommendation "ludicrous" and the "latest attempt by traffic safety activist groups to expand the definition of 'drunk.'"
"Moving from .08 to .05 would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior," said Sarah Longwell, managing director of ABI, in an interview with ABC News.
The trade association estimated that the average woman would reach the .05 level after just one drink, and disputed NTSB's claim that lowering the BAC threshold would save lives.
"Out of the over 32,000 US traffic fatalities in 2011, less than 1 percent were caused by drivers between .05 and .08 percent BAC," Longwell said. "Further restricting the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to stop hardcore drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel.”
Tuesday's NTSB recommendations coincide with the 25th anniversary of the deadliest alcohol-related crash in US history, when a drunk driver drove his pickup the wrong way on Interstate 71 near Carrollton, Kentucky on May 14, 1988. The truck struck a school bus, killing 24 children and three adults, and injuring more than 30 others.