Long-Term Battle Begins for .05 Standard

Peter GoelzThe issue of what constitutes a level of blood alcohol that dangerously impairs a person’s ability to drive remains a contentious issue – but increasingly only in the United States. Across the world, countries have been accepting the growing evidence that impairment begins as low as a level of .05 and have been setting the legal limit at or even below that amount.

In the United States, the limit remains at .08 for adults but that standard is coming under attack as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has mounted a renewed campaign to lower the level to .05. The NTSB points to numerous studies that show that most individuals’ reaction times, analytical skills and general driving ability deteriorate starting at .05. Now this can vary depending on such factors as body weight, activity and metabolism but the NTSB says it is clear that at .05 and above the danger increases.

A national adoption of the .05 standard would have a dramatic effect on any number of everyday activities such as attending sporting events, eating at restaurants or even socializing with friends. So much of life in the United States centers on the use of the automobile that many are fearful that the NTSB has underestimated the impact that the proposed new level would have on local economies and on everyday life. The NTSB rejects such concerns pointing to countries such as Australia where the .05 standard has been on the books for almost two decades. Australia, like the United States, is heavily dependent on the automobile, but has lived comfortably with the lower level and has seen alcohol related accidents and fatalities drop.

The battle will be fought first at the state level where you can expect to see legislation lowering the blood alcohol level to .05 introduced in a number of states this year. Massachusetts is on the early target list. The debate will likely be intense and will center on fundamental issues such as at what point does government regulation go too far in trying to protect us? What about the victims – don’t they have a right to be protected? And, why don’t we first crack down and enforce the current .08 level?

These are compelling arguments and we will start to hear more as the debate begins to determine whether the United States will join most other countries in the effort to combat the scourge of drunk driving.

Peter Goelz is a Senior Vice President in O’Neill and Associates’  Washington, DC office and the former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board. Connect with him on Twitter or by email at pgoelz@oneillandassoc.com