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Drunk driving: Why is MADD among critics of lower alcohol limit? (+video)

The National Transportation Safety Board is proposing that the legal limit for a driver's blood-alcohol content be reduced from 0.08 to 0.05. Critics say it's the wrong focus for anti-drunk driving efforts.

By Correspondent / May 15, 2013

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Deborah Hersman speaks during a news conference in Washington, on Feb. 7. Federal accident investigators were weighing a recommendation Tuesday that states reduce their threshold for drunken driving from the current .08 blood alcohol content to .05, a standard that has been shown to substantially reduce highway deaths in other countries.

Ann Heisenfelt/AP/File

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On its surface, the recommendation seems simple: reduce the legal limit for blood-alcohol content (BAC), and drunken-driving fatalities will fall, too.

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Jeff Glor reports on the National Transportation Safety Board's new suggestions for lowering the blood alcohol limit by nearly half -- and the objections they're receiving from the beverage and hospitality industries.

But nearly as soon as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made that proposal Tuesday, a chorus of dissent began. Lower the BAC limit, critics argued, and you criminalize responsible social drinkers – and do little to make the roads safer.

And the opposition came from some unlikely corners.

“As a mother whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver, the most important thing to me is that we save as many lives as we can as soon as possible,” says Jan Withers, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). “The issue with lowering the legal limit is that it will take a lot of effort for a potential result that is many, many years down the line.”

While MADD doesn’t oppose the idea of lowering the legal limit in principle, it’s the wrong place for the government to focus its efforts against drunken driving now, she says. It’s a critique mirrored by many involved with drunken-driving policy issues.

The NTSB is proposing that the legal limit for BAC be reduced from its current level of 0.08 to 0.05.

There’s no neat correlation between blood-alcohol level and drinks consumed, but in general, a 140-pound person could consume three drinks and fall below the 0.08 ceiling, and a 180-pound person four. But if the limit were set at 0.05, that would drop to two drinks or less for the smaller person and three for the larger. 

“The fact is, many alcohol-involved traffic incidents aren't caused by alcoholics, but just people who had one too many, and lowering the legal limit helps deter those people,” says Thomas Babor, an expert on alcohol abuse at the University of Connecticut’s medical school in Farmington.  

Indeed, both supporters and critics of the NTSB recommendation agree on that point: Drunken drivers shouldn’t be on the road. But how you make that happen is a sticking point.

According to the NTSB, a driver with a BAC of 0.05 is 38 percent more likely to be in a crash as compared with a completely sober driver, and a driver with a level of 0.08 is 169 percent more likely. (The figure rises to nearly 400 percent when the driver has a BAC of 0.10.)

At 0.05, individuals are “as distracted as you are when you have the radio up too loud,” says Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute, a trade organization.

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