Would Lowering Blood Alcohol Limit Help in Curbing DUI Accidents?

girl blowing into breathalyzerThe deadliest drunk driving crash in American history took place 25 years ago. It involved a bus loaded with 62 teens and four chaperons that was hit by a pickup truck whose driver was going the wrong way. The article identified the driver of the pickup truck as Larry Mahoney. He was allegedly drunk after drinking numerous beers and vodka earlier in the night. According to the news report, he had a blood alcohol level of .24 percent at the time, nearly two and a half times Kentucky’s legal limit of .10 percent in 1988.

The collision caused the front door of the bus to be jammed shut and ruptured the unprotected fuel tank resulting to a raging fire within 90 seconds after the pickup truck slammed into the bus. The occupants of the bus had to rush to the rear exit door that was blocked by coolers when they found out that they could not break the windows.

Although the bus occupants were not injured by the collision, 27 were killed by the resulting fire and a number received burn injuries, according to the results of a Kentucky State Police investigation. While Maloney survived the crash, 27 people died that night and the survivors still bearing the scars of the accident. One survivor identified as Harold Dennis, sustained third degree burns over 20 percent of his body. Harold underwent numerous skin graft surgeries because of the severity of his burns, but he is still disfigured.

The drunk driver served 11 years in prison for manslaughter and assault (17 years original sentence). He was reported to be living a quiet life in a small property owned by his parents after his release from prison. His friends disclosed that Maloney no longer touched alcohol after that fatal accident and still felt the guilt of what had happened.

Another good thing that came from this accident was the changes in the school bus safety measures. Now, the bus is designed with the occupants’ safety in mind. The blood alcohol limit was also lowered from .10 percent to .08 percent.

Presently, there is a recommendation to lower the blood alcohol limit from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent. The proposal was presented by James Fell, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, Alcohol, Policy and Safety Research Center in Calverton, Maryland.

James Fell presented the benefits of further lowering the legal blood alcohol limit to legislation. According to him:

  • Research shows that most people experience a decline in both cognitive and visual functions related to driving with a blood-alcohol content of just 0.05, increasing the risk of being involved in a potentially fatal crash. By lowering the limit, it is possible to save a thousand lives a year if this restriction will have an 8 to 10 percent effect in curbing DUI.
  • The reduced blood-alcohol level has proven to be effective at lowering highway deaths abroad and could work just as well in the U.S. if the standard becomes law.

 The proposal was met with challenge by the American Beverage Institute which is a restaurant trade association located in Washington D.C. These are their arguments:

  • The proposal is targeting responsible moderate drinkers instead of the dangerous drunken drivers who pose the greatest threat to traffic safety.
  • Over 70 percent of drunk driving fatalities are caused by drivers with 0.15 or higher (six to seven drinks) and the average BAC (blood alcohol content) of a drunk driver involved in a fatal crash is 0.16 percent — twice the current legal limit in Utah.
  • Sarah Longwell, the managing director of American Beverage Institute stated, “It’s ridiculous to assume that moving to 0.05 and criminalizing perfectly responsible behavior will eliminate drunk driving fatalities.”
  • Sarah Longwell added that Utah already has very strict penalties for drunk driving and stringent restrictions on alcohol sales. 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.
  • Sarah Longwell also stated, “lowering the legal limit would simply divert valuable public resources that should be used to pursue the most dangerous offenders and instead, use them to target drivers engaging in perfectly safe behavior.”
  • The organization also argued that out of the more than 32,000 U.S. traffic fatalities in 2011 — the most recent year for data — less than 1 percent were caused by drivers with blood alcohol levels between 0.05 and 0.08 percent, so lowering the legal limit is unlikely to lower the fatality rate further.

Research done by Fell and Voas in 2006, which was centered on reviewing literature/studies conducted on lowered BACs has the following findings:

  • Fourteen independent studies in the United States indicate that lowering the illegal BAC limit from .10 to .08 has resulted in 5–16% reductions in alcohol-related crashes, fatalities, or injuries.
  • However, the illegal limit is .05 BAC in numerous countries around the world. Several studies indicate that lowering the illegal per se limit from .08 to .05 BAC also reduces alcohol-related fatalities.
  • Laboratory studies indicate that impairment in critical driving functions begins at low BACs and that most subjects are significantly impaired at .05 BAC. The relative risk of being involved in a fatal crash as a driver is 4 to 10 times greater for drivers with BACs between .05 and .07, compared to drivers with .00 BACs.

On the other hand, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published the results of the study entitled, “Statistical Analysis of Alcohol-related Driving Trends, 1982-2005”. According to NHTSA:

  • Alcohol laws are responsible for the 44% of the change or reduction. The minimum legal drinking age (MLDA-21, Zero Tolerance), .10 BAC, .08 BAC, and ALR laws were very effective in deterring alcohol-related fatal crashes involving drivers who had been drinking at the time of the crash. Most of the laws were already in effect in most of the States by 1997. Hence, the majority of the improvements in alcohol-related fatal crash involvements (due to the laws) occurred before 1997. The .08 BAC law is the only law that was passed in a large number of states since 1997. As a result, small additional improvements in alcohol-related crashes occurred after 1997. The leveling off by and large after 1997 does not imply that the laws are becoming less effective. On the contrary, they effectively maintain the proportion of drivers involved in fatal crashes who had been drinking.
  • Demographic trends are responsible for the 52% of the change. As the driving population became older (specifically the majority of the baby-boomer generation turned 35 by 1998), they tended to drink less and thus, were less likely to be involved in alcohol-related fatal crashes.  The increasing numbers and annual mileage of female drivers. Female drivers accounted for nearly half of the driving population by 1997 and that proportion did not change after that); females are less likely to drink and drive than males. The leveling off of these demographic trends circa 1998 (and even a slight reversal in the trend toward an aging driver population in the last few years) further explains much of the leveling off in the proportion of drivers involved in fatal crashes at all BAC levels.

Clearly the intention of the proposal is a positive one and those stating their opposition may have valid reasons for doing it. Christensen & Hymas hopes that legislators would seriously consider what is best for the majority. Drinking and driving is a serious problem in our society and we hope everyone will cooperate to reduce highway fatalities and injuries.

Image courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Natasha Stannard

Ken Christensen
Partner, Founder at Christensen & Hymas
Ken Christensen is the founding partner of Christensen & Hymas. He is an avid cyclist, loves baseball, and enjoys spending time with his family in the outdoors.

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