NTSB wants states to lower legal blood-alcohol standard for drunken drivers

Posted Tuesday, May. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Ordering that second frozen margarita could be a ticket to jail for some motorists, if states go along with the latest recommendation from a safety group that wants to redefine drunk driving.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday recommended that states lower the threshold for driving while intoxicated to a blood-alcohol content of .05. Today in Texas and most other states, motorists are generally considered too drunk to drive with a BAC of .08 or more.

If that amount was changed to .05, a woman weighing less than 120 pounds could be intoxicated if she downed more than one drink in an hour. For a 180-pound man, the limit would be two drinks in an hour.

More than 100 other countries have lowered their allowable blood-alcohol levels to .05, and reduced alcohol-related road deaths, NTSB says.

But at a time when safety advocates are calling for toughen measures to get drunks and other bad drivers off the roads, Texas seems to be headed the other direction.

With only five days remaining in the current legislative session, bills that would allow police to conduct sobriety checkpoints, require ignition interlocking devices for all DWI offenders or prohibit texting while driving are heading down a proverbial dead-end road.

“Those bills don’t seem to go anywhere,” said Vic Suhm, executive director of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, who has followed transportation and driver behavior bills closely for many years. “It’s just sort of that small government, stay-out-of-my-business mentality.”

Advised not to drive

NTSB officials said they didn’t intend to prevent drivers from having a glass of wine with dinner, but agreed that if states set the blood-alcohol content - or BAC - level to .05 that people who consumed one or two drinks would be best advised not to drive at all.

Lowering the blood-alcohol level could hurt local businesses, even those trying to serve customers responsibly, said Shannon Wynne, owner of Flying Saucer beer emporium in downtown Fort Worth.

“It’s very hard to determine if someone has had a drink or not, or several or if anything to eat before arriving,” Wynne said. “It’s awfully hard for operators to determine somebody’s body chemistry.”

Flying Saucer has a standing policy that no customer can have more than six beers in two hours, no matter their weight or gender, he said. Also, he said, servers are instructed not to continue serving customers who show signs of intoxication, even if they’ve only ordered one or two drinks.

Still, alcohol concentration levels as low as .01 have been associated with driving-related performance impairment, and levels as low as .05 have been associated with significantly increased risk of fatal crashes, NTSB said.

In Europe, the share of traffic deaths attributable to drunken driving was reduced by more than half within 10 years after the standard was dropped, the report said.

Alcohol is a factor in about a third of all fatal crashes, NTSP reports.

"Our goal is to get to zero deaths because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable," said Deborah Hersman, NTSB chairwoman. "Alcohol-impaired deaths are not accidents. They are crimes. They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will."

Law enforcement officials typically measure blood-alcohol concentration with a breath or blood test.

States likely to resist

States likely will resist proposals to lower the alcohol limit to .05, said Jonathan Adkins, Governors Highway Safety Association spokesman.

"It was very difficult to get .08 in most states, so lowering it again won't be popular," Adkins said. "The focus in the states is on high (blood alcohol content) offenders as well as repeat offenders. We expect industry will also be very vocal about keeping the limit at .08."

Officials at Mothers Against Drunk Driving applauded NTSB for seeking to reduce drunk driving deaths, but stopped short of endorsing the .05 limit. Spokeswoman Carol Ronis said the Irving-based agency, which has been accused of harboring a prohibitionist agenda, is focusing on supporting only changes in law that can be backed with its own research - and MADD hasn’t had time to closely digest the content behind NTSB’s recommendations.

MADD’s campaign is aimed at promoting tougher police enforcement such as sobriety checkpoints, and persuading states to require ignition interlocking devices that require drivers to give a breath sample before a car will start, she said.

But in Texas, bill that would allow those measures are dying on the vine.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, authored a bill that would allow sobriety checkpoints - a bill supported by Arlington officials. But the bill has been sitting in a Senate criminal justice committee since March, untouched.

A bill that would prohibit the use of mobile devices, including texting, while driving is stalled in a Senate transportation committee, said Jennifer Smith, a former Grapevine resident now living in Chicago who has become a national advocate for preventing distracted driving.

“Do they not understand that it will save the state millions of dollars if they reduce these crashes?” Smith said.

A bill that would allow expanded use of ignition interlocking devices appears to be doomed this session as well, said Frank Harris, MADD state legislative affairs manager.

“Unfortunately those measures ran up against a big wall of opposition this year. Sadly, MADD’s going to have to wait until 2015,” Harris said.

“As a result, 2,400 more people are going to die in Texas, unless we have a chance to fix the law.”

Tough to enforce

NTSB has previously recommended states require all convicted drunken drivers install the interlock devices in their vehicles as a condition to resume driving. Currently, 17 states and two California counties require all convicted drivers use the devices. Texas allows use of interlocking ignition devices for repeat DWI offenders, and as a condition of probation - and currently about 35,000 cars on Texas roads are equipped with the devices, MADD officials said.

However, only about a quarter of drivers ordered to use the devices actually end up doing so, NTSB said. Drivers use a variety of ways to evade using the devices, including claiming they won't drive at all or don't own a vehicle and therefore don't need the devices.

The board recommended the safety administration develop a program to encourage states to ensure all convicted drivers actually use the devices. The board also recommended that all suspected drunken drivers whose licenses are confiscated by police be required to install interlocks as a condition of getting their licenses reinstated even though they haven't yet been convicted of a crime.

Courts usually require drivers to pay for the devices, which cost about $50 to $100 to buy plus a $50 a month fee to operate, staff said.

The board has previously called on the safety administration and the auto industry to step up their research into technology for use in all vehicles that can detect whether a driver has elevated blood alcohol without the driver breathing into a tube or taking any other action. Drivers with elevated levels would be unable to start their cars.

But the technology is still years away.

Studies show more than 4 million people a year in the U.S. drive while intoxicated, but about half of the intoxicated drivers stopped by police escape detection, the NTSB report said. The board also recommended expanded use of passive alcohol devices by police. The devices are often contained in real flash lights or shaped to look like a cellphone that officers wear on their shirt pockets or belts. If an officer points the flashlight at a driver or the cellphone-like device comes in close proximity to an intoxicated driver, the devices will alert police who may not have any other reason to suspected drunken driving.

This report includes information from The Associated Press.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson

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