Safety Board Recommends Defining Legally Drunk With Lower Blood Alcohol Level

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The government wants to drop the blood alcohol limit for being legally drunk in order to avoid drunk driving fatalities.

Currently, any driver found with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 or more is considered unfit to be behind the wheel, and can be arrested. But the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is recommending that all U.S states reduce the BAC threshold for legal drunkenness down to .05.

On Tuesday, the five-member NTSB board unanimously voted for the change in an effort to address the 10,000 people who die each year in drunk-driving accidents, and the nearly four million people who admit to getting behind the wheel while under the influence.

According to the board, one person dies in a car crash that involves a drunk driver each hour, and 20 more people are injured, including three who develop debilitating injuries.

(MORE: Task Force Recommends Screening All Adults for Alcohol Misuse)

But will the small change have an impact on driving while intoxicated? “There is a major difference, and people do not necessarily realize that,” says Bruce Goldman, the director of Substance Abuse Services at The Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks New York. “As a general guideline, we calculate about .02 to .03 BAC per drink per hour. To get to .08, that’s four drinks in an hour.”

Goldman says that people with a BAC of .05 are quite impaired. “[Drinkers] may not appear impaired, but it does not mean their ability to drive is unaltered. They may speak OK, but their judgement is not as good as it would be normally,” he says. NBC reported that after Australia implemented a similar drop in BAC, deaths from drunk driving also decline by 5% to 18%.

The NTSB has no authority to enforce their recommendation, and it remains up to states and the Department of Transportation to enforce it. And it’s likely there will be a significant amount of push-back. “This recommendation is ludicrous,” Sarah Longwell, the managing director of American Beverage Institute told NBC News. “Moving from 0.08 to 0.05 would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior.”

Aware of the potential backlash, the board is also recommending greater penalties for offenders and better use of emerging technologies to detect alcohol. They are also pushing for more research into developing technologies — such as breathalyzers linked to the ignition — that could be placed in cars to identify at-risk drinkers and prevent intoxicated people from getting on the road.

You can view the full report, here [PDF].