TRENTON, N.J. — There's a new number in the nation's war against drunk drivers.
More states are showing their intolerance for those who drink and drive by lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit from 0.1 to 0.08. New Jersey, which recently introduced such a bill, is hoping to put itself in a league with 14 other states - from California to Massachusetts - which already have laws on the books.
While dropping the legal limit a few fractions of a point may sound insignificant, studies indicate that in states that have adopted the new limits, alcohol-related accident fatalities have significantly declined. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Congress are now urging states to lower the limit.
"If it accomplishes nothing else, it will make people more aware of how much they're drinking," says New Jersey state Sen. Louis Kosco.
Critics, however, say the average blood-alcohol level (BAC) of drunk drivers is 0.16. Lowering the legal limit targets moderate drinkers, not heavy drinkers who are the most accident prone. Others worry that a surge in arrests will flood already overcrowded courts. And restaurant and liquor-store owners say the measure could hurt business.
But supporters aren't moved by such arguments. "There's enough research to show that you are more than amply impaired when you reach a 0.08 blood-alcohol level and are driving a motor vehicle," says Terry Schiavone, director of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving.
Three years ago, only six states had such laws. But, under pressure from the growing clout of groups like Mr. Schiavone's and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, more states have adopted the tougher approach.
It takes a 160-pound man (most drunk drivers are male) about four drinks in an hour to reach an intoxication level where 0.08 percent of his blood consists of alcohol. Until recently, most research has held that alcohol begins to impair driving at the 0.1 level. But some researchers now say that poor driving performance, reduced peripheral vision, and impaired judgment begins before a person hits the 0.1 level.
Last year, scientists at Boston University compared five states with 0.08 limits to five neighboring states with 0.1 limits. Their research found that the 0.08 states saw a 16 percent drop in fatal accidents involving drivers with blood-alcohol levels of 0.08 or higher.
That study concluded that 500 to 600 fewer fatal crashes would occur annually if every state adopted 0.08 laws, says Ralph Hingson, who lead the team at Boston University's School of Public Health. "It looks like, from the data, it not only affects drivers at 0.08, but it seems to lower the whole curve," he adds.
Some vendors of alcoholic beverages argue that the lower limit could mean fewer jobs and less income for restaurant workers.
But Hingson points out that when France switched last year from a 0.08 BAC limit to 0.05, it had no effect on alcohol consumption. Japan enacted a BAC level of zero in 1970, yet alcohol consumption has tripled and the number of cars doubled, while alcohol-related fatalities dropped from 1,500 to 500.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - encouraged by a 12 percent decline in alcohol-related fatalities in California in 1991 - has recommended since then that states with a 0.1 alcohol limit switch to a 0.08 BAC limit. Even Congress has begun to offer grants to states that do so.