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Listening to the New National Dialogue on Drunk Driving Standards

Posted D. Joseph Chapman on Jul 14, 2013 in Car Accidents

Years of public campaigns to reduce the threat of drunk driving on the nation’s streets and highways have helped, but most people will agree that the successes we have seen do not go far enough. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says that about 170,000 people across the United States are injured in alcohol-related traffic accidents. About 10,000 die.

That’s too many. Everyone agrees that something more should be done.

Earlier this year, the NTSB announced it had a solution—or at least the next step—in the struggle against drunk driving. Its proposal to significantly change drunk-driving standards has started a nationwide conversation about how we approach law enforcement in the United States and about the limits to government action.

Lowering the blood-alcohol threshold

Today, all 50 states have set a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) level of .08 percent as the official standard for intoxication. The BAC represents the amount of alcohol, by volume, present in a subject’s bloodstream. Breath and blood tests are both commonly used to test drivers’ blood-alcohol content when intoxication is suspected. If the test shows that a driver’s BAC exceeds the .08 standard, the driver may be arrested and prosecuted.

In May 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board proposed that the drunk driving standard be lowered to .05 percent blood-alcohol concentration.

The NTSB and its allies have advanced a number of arguments about why such a policy change would be in the public interest:

  • Studies show that many skills related to driving begin to be impaired even below the .08 BAC level. Lowering the level to .05, if properly enforced, would keep dangerous drivers off the road. The NTSB estimates that 500 to 800 lives would be saved every year.
  • Most nations in Europe have adopted standards of .05 or lower and have significantly reduced auto accidents from drunk driving.
  • Truck drivers in the United States already operate under a maximum .04 BAC rule, which shows that US law could accommodate a .05 BAC standard.

The opposition speaks

It should be noted that the National Transportation Safety Board does not have the power to change the law; it can only urge state governments to alter their current policies. The last time the federal government exerted pressure on the states to lower drunk driving standards from .15 to .08 BAC, the effort took about 20 years and only succeeded after Washington threatened to withhold some highway funds from states that did not comply.

The current NTSB proposal has received a mixed reaction. Some private advocacy groups—such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), AAA, and government agencies such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—expressed interest in the recommendation but did not endorse it. Organizations representing the restaurant and beverage industries were very critical of the proposal. Among their objections:

  • A person cannot estimate his own intoxication level accurately.
  • A .05 BAC benchmark is just too low. Most people can operate motor vehicles perfectly well under .08 BAC, so lowering the threshold would make criminals of people who aren’t really intoxicated.

The new law would not deter hard-core drunks—and it’s the repeat drunk-driving offender who is the true threat behind the wheel.

The debate isn’t over

The discussion over this proposal will not go away. We can expect to hear it being debated in statehouses all across America in the coming years.

In the meantime, if you have been injured in a Pennsylvania car accident caused by a drunk driver, you need an ally in your corner. At the law offices of Schmidt Kramer, our Harrisburg car crash attorneys are ready to help you get the recovery you deserve from a negligent driver and his insurance company. Call us today at 717-888-8888 or 888-476-0807 toll-free to schedule a free, confidential case review. Just for calling, we would be glad to send you a FREE copy of our book, Who Pays The Bills When You Are Injured In An Automobile Accident?, as our way of introducing our firm.