A Closer Look at What 0.05 BAC Means

With such a big change on the discussion table about what the legal BAC means, it’s important to closely examine what impact the NTSB’s proposition would have. In a drastic step to decrease drunk driving, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a report earlier this year recommending that states lower the level of blood alcohol level (BAC) required for an OVI arrest. Currently in all 50 states, BAC must be at 0.08 for am OVI, commonly known as DUI, but the proposed level would only be 0.05. That’s about a 50% cut in how much alcohol can be in a person’s blood while driving.

To put this in perspective, currently an average sized adult can drink about 2 beers and a couple of margaritas. According to The Police Notebook BAC calculator, under the new proposal a person who weighs 160 pounds could only have one of the following before being unable to drive:

  • 2 light beers
  • 1 dry martini
  • 1 frozen daiquiri
  • 2 glasses of wine

A smaller person may be unable to have so much as a glass of wine at dinner. This also means the average woman wouldn’t be able to have more than 1 drink without being considered legally impaired.

The recommendation was met with approval by some, including the Governors Highway Safety Association and MADD, who laud the change as preventing drunk-driver related deaths. Although the number of alcohol related driving fatalities has been on the decline for years, they say that a reduced BAC requirement will further help reduce them. The report estimates that this measure would reduce fatalities by 500-800 each year.

However, opponents of the proposal say that this will do very little to help with drunk drivers and instead will hamper responsibly drinking adults and the restaurant industry’s workers. The American Beverage Institute, which represents 8,000 restaurants and their workers, has said that this measure focuses on moderate drinkers instead of the real problem. They say that that reducing the BAC so severely will keep reasonable and safe adults from being able to relax and have a drink while crippling servers working at restaurants that serve alcoholic beverages with little to show for it. Sarah Longwell, spokeswoman for the organization, compared the recommendation to a situation when “people are driving though an intersection at 90 miles an hour and so you drop the speed limit from 35 to 25.”

Over 70% of alcohol related traffic fatalities are attributed to drivers with a BAC or over 0.15, twice the current legal limit. So when the majority of deaths result from drivers who are far over the allowed BAC, will lowering that BAC help the problem? Opponents of the recommendation say that it would be more beneficial to focus efforts on repeat offenders and those far over the legal limit. Concerns have been raised that more drivers will face a first DUI arrest and its serious consequences without any real progress being made to protect lives.

The NTSB does not hold any actual authority to draft laws or legislation, but their recommendation certainly has weight in debates over the future of DUI legislation. The board initially made the recommendation in 1982 that the legal limit be decreased from 0.10 to 0.08.

Speculation has emerged over what this could mean for technology in cars as well. Testing will soon be underway for car devices that test BAC, with the possibility of this technology coming standard in all cars. If the legal BAC might be undergoing changes, this could lead to a hiccup in this development. If the debate over the legal BAC interferes with the development and production of these devices, it might interfere with their ability to save lives. The question would then come down to whether a device that refuses to start your car if you’ve been drinking or a lower BAC law would prevent more drunk-driving deaths.

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