One of the most remarkable public health achievements over the past 30 years has been the sharp decline in the number of Americans dying each year because of drunken driving.
In 1982, the annual toll of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities stood at 21,113. Thanks to a fortuitous constellation of heightened public awareness, aggressive law enforcement, and greater use of seat belts and air bags, deaths had decreased 53 percent by 2011.
That’s a major improvement. But it shouldn’t overshadow the still shocking number of deaths each year because of alcohol-impaired driving: 9,878. Even one of these entirely preventable deaths is unacceptable. Nearly 10,000 a year is a public health crisis, which is why a new federal push to lower the blood alcohol concentration threshold from 0.08 to 0.05 — a level at which crash risk significantly escalates — merits early support in Minnesota and elsewhere.
Three decades after the nation first got serious about the dangers of drunken driving, it’s time to reignite the debate over how to stop it. The key question going forward: What else needs to be done? The compelling safety data behind the proposed move to 0.05 — a recommendation made recently by the respected National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) — is a logical place to focus this overdue national dialogue.
In 2012, the NTSB began a yearlong effort to convene experts and identify the “most effective, scientifically-based” next steps not only to reduce drunken driving fatalities but eliminate them altogether.
That’s a lofty but entirely reasonable goal, one that a number of European countries are pursuing. Those who dismiss it as unrealistic should be asked to explain why any drunken driving deaths, or any of the 200,000-plus annual injuries caused by these crashes, should be tolerated. These aren’t “accidents.” They’re the direct result of reckless behavior.
The NTSB recently issued its recommendations in a thoughtful, well-argued report. Lowering the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit to 0.05 was just one of many sensible suggestions put forward in the report, but it was easily the most controversial.
Nationally and in Minnesota, politically powerful liquor industry trade groups have begun mobilizing against the move to 0.05 — even though the NTSB report is not legally binding and individual state legislatures would have to approve the change. That process took years when the threshold was previously lowered from 0.10 to 0.08, with Minnesota the last state to implement the change in 2005.
Among the arguments against the lower BAC limit: that moderate drinkers could now be arrested for drunken driving and that bar and restaurant owners could see sales slide if customers order fewer drinks. Industry lobbyists, and even some Minnesota law enforcement officials, also correctly point out that many of those arrested for drunken driving are still far over the current limit.
The new 0.05 limit certainly would not be a panacea for the ongoing epidemic of drunken driving deaths, but the reality is that a cure-all does not exist. What will make roads safer is using an array of strategies to deter impaired drivers. Lowering the limit should be one of the first next-generation measures considered.
Studies increasingly show that even a small amount of alcohol can significantly impair drivers’ performance. While many people are reluctant to believe that one or two glasses of wine at dinner — which may be all it takes for some to be at 0.05 — makes them a threat on the road, the data suggests otherwise. “Epidemiological studies employing crash data have shown significantly elevated crash risk at BAC levels near 0.05,’’ the NTSB report stated.
Researchers have found that European countries that have moved to the 0.05 limit from 0.08 saw a 10 to 12 percent reduction in road fatalities. A study of U.S. commercially-licensed drivers found that lowering the BAC limit for them to 0.04 was linked to a 23 percent decrease.
In Minnesota, the proposed change to 0.05 was given cautious support by Minnesota law enforcement officers contacted by an editorial writer. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said additional measures are needed to deter drunken driving. He said many of those arrested are surprised to find they’re over the limit.
Even if political challenges mean a lower limit is years away, just talking about the road risk of relatively small amounts of alcohol is a step forward and, potentially, a lifesaver. “It’s a policy message and a behavioral message sent to the public to drink less, particularly if you’ve been driving,’’ said University of Minnesota emeritus clinical law Prof. Stephen M. Simon.