By Kenny Bragg
In 2016, 10,497 motor vehicle crash fatalities involved drivers with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 g/dL or higher; that means almost 3 of every 10 lives lost on our highways involved impairment. What’s more, every life lost as a result of alcohol-impaired driving could have been saved, because deaths resulting from impaired driving are 100% preventable when the driver chooses to call a cab, hand the keys to a sober friend, or take public transportation to get home.
I’m a retired police officer, and, during my time in the traffic enforcement division, I encountered countless impaired drivers and investigated numerous impaired-driving crashes. I evaluated and arrested drivers impaired at all BAC levels.
The current per se BAC limit of 0.08 percent gives the public a false belief that lower BACs are safe when, in reality, impairment begins with the first drink. Many drivers don’t realize that even low levels of alcohol can degrade skills and increase crash risk. This is why, 5 years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended that states decrease legal per se BAC levels to 0.05 percent—or even lower. “End Alcohol and Other Drug Impairment in Transportation” is one item on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. This list, released biennially, includes transportation safety goals that have a strong chance of being achieved if given a good, hard push by the NTSB, likeminded organizations, and states. We believe that the bold move to lower the legal per se BAC limit will save lives and decrease the number of highway deaths each year.
Many ad campaigns remind us that “buzzed driving is drunk driving,” but how can we support that message with laws and enforcement? About 100 countries around the world already have a .05 BAC law. In fact, although people consume more alcohol, per capita, in countries with .05 BAC laws, they are less likely to die from impaired driving. In 2012, Alberta, Canada, passed an administrative penalty law that imposes tougher sanctions on drivers with BACs of .05 to .08 percent. Between July 1, 2012, and December 31, 2013, Alberta saw a decline in alcohol-related fatalities compared to the same period in each of the previous 5 years.
Some advocates support a .05 limit but believe we should focus only on solutions targeting high-BAC drivers, or on emerging technology that prevents impaired drivers from operating a vehicle. However, a .05 BAC law is a broad deterrent that decreases the number of impaired drivers on the road at all BAC levels—high and low. Along with alcohol interlocks and enhanced enforcement efforts—which we have also recommended—a .05 BAC limit would help prevent drivers with high BACs from getting behind the wheel.
Many peer-reviewed studies demonstrate that lowering the legal BAC limit would indeed prevent impaired-driving crashes, and, according to a AAA Foundation survey, 63% of Americans would support a .05 BAC law. However, only one US state has taken the bold step to pass such a lifesaving law, which would encourage people to find other forms of transportation when they’ve been drinking. Utah passed a 0.05 BAC law in 2017, which will go into effect on December 30, 2018.
Some opponents argue that lowering the per se BAC level will be too complicated, and that law enforcement will struggle to accurately evaluate lower BAC levels during field sobriety tests. I was an active law enforcement officer when the legal per se BAC level was lowered from 0.10 to 0.08. As with the current recommendation to lower the legal BAC, opponents predicted that lowering the BAC to .08 would result in arrests that were un-prosecutable, and that responsible drinkers would be unjustly punished. However, once the law was implemented, agencies actually experienced a decline in arrests at all BAC levels.
In these days of advanced technology and connectivity, if you have a phone, you have a sober ride. There is no excuse for driving after drinking.
Kenny Bragg is a Senior Human Performance Highway Investigator for the NTSB. He is a retired accident reconstruction investigator from the Prince George’s County Police Department (MD).