Changes to ‘legal limit’ questionable

Published: Friday, June 7, 2013 8:58 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — Drunken driving remains a deadly epidemic, although awareness and attitudes about the consequences have been greatly improved during the past few decades.

Education, especially among younger drivers, and tough enforcement of the law have helped cut drunken driving-related deaths from more than 21,000 in 1980 to just under 10,000 by 2011, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving statistics.

Twenty-seven deaths a day in America are too many still, but lowering the legal limit — the point at which a person is presumed intoxicated — is not the solution.

The National Transportation Safety Board has urged states to cut the legal blood-alcohol content from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.

That would mean a 175-pound man who had three beers or glasses of wine within an hour’s time would be drunk under the new guidelines. For a 125-pound woman, it would be two drinks.

Unfortunately, short of having a Breathalyzer handy, this is a best-guess situation. Many factors beyond weight and gender, such as metabolism and time spent drinking, have a hand in determining a person’s blood-alcohol level.

At 0.05, the potential for an otherwise responsible person to become a criminal could be decided by a few sips.

It’s understandable even the pre-eminent fighters of drunken driving, MADD, won’t give its support to the idea.

Supporters point to overseas countries, many of which have an 0.05 limit. But even the NTSB’s own statistics show just 5 percent of all fatalities involve drivers with 0.01 to 0.08 blood-alcohol levels.

Law enforcement authorities also have the ability to arrest those under the presumed intoxication limit if they determine the person’s driving is impaired.

Perhaps the greatest deterrent to driving under the influence has been, and continues to be, aggressive enforcement of the law. Coupled with steep penalties, that seems to be working.

So, too, are technological tools that can be used as more of a teaching experience than jail time. Ignition interlock devices, which require a driver blow into a tube to establish sobriety before an engine will start, have proven to significantly reduce recidivism, for example.

A change in the legal limit would require additional expenses for enforcement and prosecution. It would also require a new set of skills to detect an impaired driver. Where someone with a BAC of 0.08 or higher is likely to show a decline in depth perception and peripheral vision as well as reasoning and reflexes — things easy to spot among drivers — federal aviation studies indicate the biggest impairment with a BAC of 0.03 to 0.06 is in the ability to concentrate.

Preventing death and injury at the hands of someone who has had too much to drink is an admirable goal.

But too many questions remain about whether lowering the legal limit would have any real impact on those numbers.

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This editorial first appeared in The Telegraph, Alton, Ill.

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©2013 The Telegraph (Alton, Ill.)

Visit The Telegraph (Alton, Ill.) at www.thetelegraph.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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