WASHINGTON -- The National Transportation Safety Board recommended on Tuesday that all 50 states adopt a blood-alcohol content cutoff of 0.05, compared with the current 0.08 standard used by law enforcement and courts to prosecute drunk drivers.
The idea for a tighter standard is part of a safety board initiative outlined in a staff report and approved by the panel to eventually eliminate drunk driving, which accounts for about a third of all road deaths in the U.S. The board also recommended on Tuesday that states expand laws allowing police to speedily confiscate licenses from drivers who exceed blood alcohol limits.
In the past 30 years, according to NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman, more than 440,000 people have died in the U.S. due to alcohol-impaired driving. Lowering the BAC rate to 0.05 would save about 500 to 800 lives annually, the safety board said. If a 0.05 rate becomes the law of the land, a typical 180-lb. male will hit 0.051 after only three beers over an hour, according to bloodalcoholcalculator.org, an online blood alcohol calculator.
However, states set their own BAC standards, not the NTSB, which only investigates transportation accidents and advocates on safety issues. While it cannot impose its own regulations, it wields great influence when recommending changes to federal and state agencies or legislatures, including Congress. More than 100 countries on six continents have BAC limits set at 0.05 or lower, the safety board said.
"This recommendation is ludicrous," said Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute. "Moving from 0.08 to 0.05 would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior. 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."
Before the laws banning smoking in bars and taverns became common in most states, tougher DUI regulations were considered responsible for reducing foot traffic in those locations, according to sources in the coin machine trade. In the early 1980s, most states required a 0.15 BAC rate to establish intoxication. But over the next 24 years, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups pushed states to adopt the 0.08 standard, with the last state conceding in 2004.
The coin-op industry is married to taverns, which have been pummeled by America's 40-year war against drinking and smoking. In his last interview with VT as president of the Amusement and Music Operators Association, Andy Shaffer said, "I maintain the worst is over when it comes to the impact of smoking bans and tougher DUI laws on our industry. Unless another Prohibition reenters the picture, I think we've reached bottom concerning the economic toll on the industry."
Many in the music and games industry hope Shaffer is right, for the sake of business. Critics outside the industry argued that lowering the BAC rate any more will criminalize responsible social drinkers, and will do little to make the roads safer. Even MADD appears to be on the sidelines regarding the NTSB's new 0.05 recommendation.
In related news, Washington State is pushing tougher DUI enforcement. Gaining support is Senate Bill 5912, which would add 10 days in jail to all minimum sentences for DUI, make drunken driving a felony on the fourth conviction (it currently is on the fifth) and require ignition-interlock devices be installed before repeat DUI offenders are released from jail after an arrest.