The United States continues to be one of the world’s leaders in drunk-driving deaths. One of the reasons for this shameful distinction is that US drivers are allowed to operate motor vehicles with more alcohol in their system than is permitted in most other countries.
One state in the nation is an exception to this rule: Utah, which became the first state to lower the threshold for drunk driving from .08 percent blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to .05 percent BAC, joining more than 100 countries that have a limit of .05 percent or lower. In 1983, Utah was also the first state to lead the nation in lowering the threshold from .10 percent to .08 percent BAC.
Currently, California and Michigan legislators are considering whether to adopt a .05‑percent law that will save hundreds of lives and prevent thousands of life-altering injuries over the coming years. On April 3, NTSB Safety Advocate Leah Walton added her voice to the growing chorus calling for a lower BAC limit in California, for the same reasons that I spoke in favor of a similar law in Michigan on March 20, and for the same reasons that the NTSB advocated in support of Utah’s .05 law, which went into effect December 30, 2018. (New York is also considering such a move.) All three laws satisfy our 2013 safety recommendation to lower the legal BAC limit to .05 percent or lower. All three laws will separate drinking from driving, and, by doing so, all three laws will save lives.
Our .05-percent BAC limit safety recommendation was adopted in our safety study, Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving. Numerous other studies, including a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences, have reached the same conclusion: .05‑percent limits save lives.
Let me be clear: we aren’t trying to stop people from drinking; we’re working to stop people from drinking and driving. Our goal is to save lives, and our concerns are justified. In the past 10 years, more than 100,000 people have died in alcohol-involved crashes in the United States. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 10,874 people died in driving-under-the-influence crashes in 2017, the last full year on record. Clearly, .08-percent limits just aren’t working.
Reducing the legal BAC limit for driving is a broad deterrent that lowers the incidence of crashes and crash deaths at all BAC levels, not just those in the narrow range between .05 and .079 percent. It’s estimated that lowering the legal BAC limit in every state would likely reduce the number of fatal alcohol-related crashes by 11 percent, potentially saving up to 1,790 lives a year.
Other safety organizations have done their own great work in support of a .05-percent or lower BAC limit. The World Health Organization; the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine; Advocates for Auto and Highway Safety; the National Safety Council; and Mothers Against Drunk Driving have all supported our safety recommendation. A .05-percent BAC limit is also supported by a majority of US motorists—63 percent, in fact, according to the AAA 2015 Traffic Safety Culture Index.
It’s noteworthy that even countries with higher alcohol consumption per capita than the United States set their BAC limits at .05 percent or lower. It’s not that people in these countries don’t drink; they just don’t drink and drive.
Growing up, my parents taught me not to drink and drive. It was just that simple. I never once heard anyone tell me it was OK to “only drive a little drunk.” My parents never lectured me that I could drink and drive as long as I kept my BAC below a certain limit.
And that’s the goal of the .05-percent movement—separating drinking from driving. You can drink responsibly. You can drive responsibly. But no one can responsibly drink and drive.
Our goal is not to propose a new target number of drinks to have before driving; rather, it’s for people to plan to either drink or drive. But never to do both.