The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended all states lower the legal blood-alcohol content (BAC) from 0.08 to 0.05.
The NTSB offers two arguments. One, statistics show that people with a BAC of 0.05 percent are 38 percent more likely to be involved in a crash than those who have not been drinking. People with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent are 169 percent more likely.
Second, the standard in most of the industrialized world is 0.05 percent. The blood-alcohol level was reduced to 0.08 in the all states. Wyoming switched to 0.08 percent only after Congress enacted legislation that withheld highway construction money from states that didn’t adopt that standard.
Given the make-up of the Congress, it’s unlikely they would enact such coercive measures. Given the inclinations of the Wyoming legislature, it wouldn’t matter if Congress did. The real question is whether further reducing the legal limit is the best way to reduce alcohol related highway deaths. Poignantly, even a representative of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the most outspoken organization seeking a reduction in drunk driving, was lukewarm to the idea.
He told the press the 0.05 proposal “was the safety board’s (way of) trying to focus on a group of people who are more social drinkers, who haven’t been targeted in a while.” He said that while MADD would not oppose the change it would pursue other remedies.
That’s exactly what legislators should do. If the states don’t do a better job of taking drunks off the road, support for the NTSB proposal will only increase.
Drunk driving remains a problem that cannot be solved by constantly increasing the penalties. Harsher sentences have never been shown to cure the addiction behind nearly all the arrests and serious accidents. But social drinkers with .05 blood alcohol content aren’t the problem.
A recent survey of DUI arrests for in Wyoming makes that case. The average BAC reported for persons arrested for driving under the influence was 0.1529, more than 3 times the NTSB recommendation. Forty-five percent of those persons arrested for driving under the influence had an average blood alcohol content above 0.16, the average BAC reported for 404 traffic crashes that involved alcohol was 0.1628. (“Wyoming Alcohol Use Issues Survey-2006 www.uwyo.edu/wysac)
Wyoming’s problem isn’t the social drinker, but the heavy drinker who is most likely addicted to alcohol and unable to control their drinking. Effective strategies include increasing the likelihood that drunk drivers will be caught and making sure that when they are, they receive intense supervision and treatment. Polls show Wyoming voters support many of those strategies.
A 2012 University of Wyoming survey, indicated 55% felt that roadside sobriety checkpoints would be very or somewhat effective in reducing drinking and driving in their communities, over two-thirds (68.6%) of Wyoming residents say they would support (strongly or somewhat support) a tax increase in this case, and 64.3% prohibit selling or serving alcohol to someone who is obviously intoxicated.
Wyoming law currently gives civil immunity to bars that sell more booze to already intoxicated customers even when those customer stagger out the door, drive away and kill innocent people while driving intoxicated. Repeal of that immunity would be a powerful disincentive to serve customers to the point of intoxication.
Finally, the state should require all courts handling DUI cases to use those strategies proven to work in Laramie County’s DUI Court. By requiring treatment coupled with frequent testing, intense supervision, ignition lock devices and other monitoring, the Laramie County DUI Court has proved successful in changing the lives of many people who have a long string of DUI arrests and other risky, alcohol related behaviors.
Budget cuts threaten the future of these programs but they have a proven record, demonstrating outcomes making them a far more effective alternative to reducing drunk driving than either increasing the length of sentences or reducing the blood alcohol content level.
Instead of targeting social drinkers or further adding years to mandatory sentences, legislators should support research-based strategies with proven results.