WDEL Blog: Allan Loudell

To save lives, go to .05 as the legal limit for blood-alcohol?

With the goal of saving lives, the National Transportation Safety Board proposes states tighten the blood-alcohol limit for motorists from .08 to .05.

However, I have seen nothing about the Feds threatening a loss of Federal highway funding to states that don't comply. And it took two decades to get states to drop the limit from .10 to .08, a smaller drop, percentage-wise. (The First State was the last state in the nation to approve the more stringent limit, as downstate lawmakers - in particular - resisted such pressure from the Feds. Of course, the liquor flowed at Legislative Hall and at Dover restaurants / watering holes with some of those same lawmakers! These days, imbibing is done more discreetly.)

One would expect a long struggle. Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) isn't necessarily on board, although many other countries already impose more stringent limits. (For many countries, this is done at the national level, not the state/provincial level.) I would be at a loss to predict whether a single state legislature would pass such a measure.

The bottom line: A petite woman (or man) could hit the limit with a SINGLE stiff drink, particularly consumed quickly on an empty stomach!

One can imagine ferocious pushback from restaurants/bars and other interests, arguing this will cost JOBS. And all sorts of punditry about the "nanny state"!

On the other hand, if one is broadly "pro-life" (not narrowly defined as with anti-abortion), isn't this worthy of support?

That said, let me make a point I don't think I've seen anywhere. When I visited Sweden a quarter of a century ago - just before the Swedish King and Queen came to Delaware for the 350th anniversary of the "New Sweden" settlement - other than the taxi from the airport, I relied exclusively on public transportation. Perhaps things have changed 25 years later, but everything was clean and I traveled late at night without worrying about crime.

My point: Perhaps the possible economic effect on bars / pubs / restaurants of a stringent blood-alchohol limit is considerably less in a country with a vast public transportation network. Bluntly, public transportation in other countries doesn't have the sort of stigma it has in the United States.

Even with the current .08 blood-alcohol limit, I confess I'm paranoid about driving after drinking. I'll have a beer before a meal - that's about it - and even then, I wonder if I'm taking a risk. Some of my colleagues here at WDEL think it unusual that I won't have a single alcoholic beverage if we meet briefly at some watering hole, for example, after our Delaware Press Association banquet a few weeks ago. Call it paranoia: Even if one is within the legal limit, what if the Breathalyzer records a false, deceptively high reading?

I marvel how people slimmer than me consume beer, wine, even mixed drinks, and don't seem to worry about it. Maybe I've been in the news business too long. Witnessed or written about too many tragic accidents involving impaired driving. Or seen too many prominent people - including people in broadcasting - with reputations sullied from a DUI stop. I remember a well-respected TV news anchor in Memphis who suffered through such a situation.

Of course, tightening DUI blood-alcohol limits does nothing to address what may be our bigger problems these days behind-the-wheel: Distracted driving and drowsy driving, both of which may be more difficult to prove.

Here's a link to The NEW YORK TIMES story about the NTSB's push to tighten blood-alcohol levels in the United States...


Posted at 7:20pm on May 14, 2013 by Allan Loudell

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Comments on this post:

Mike from Delaware
Tue, May 14, 2013 8:00pm
WDEL aired a news story the other day about someone arrested for his 6th DUI. I think that IS the problem. Five DUIs and that clown still had his license???? Supposedly Delaware has pretty tough DUI laws, but apparently they don't apply to all and THAT's the problem.

Tue, May 14, 2013 8:00pm
I'm not a drinker anyway, but if I'm driving, I won't even fudge one drink. It's better to just stay off it if you're operating a motor vehicle, or, for that matter, any other kind of machinery with moving parts.

Tue, May 14, 2013 8:02pm
NTSB proposes. Congress disposes.

And how much do brewers, vintners, distillers, wholesalers and retailers of liquors spend on lobbying and donate to members of Congress? Probably "slightly" more than does MADD.

A lot of money in booze.

For the record, it's .04 for drivers with a commercial drivers' license.

Allan Loudell
Wed, May 15, 2013 6:01am
Mr. Smith---

Then how did the Feds manage to threaten to deny states Federal highway funding unless they dropped their legal limits from .10 to .08?

The last time, Congress DID give teeth to the recommendation to lower the blood-alcohol level, by tying that to Federal highway $ to the states.

But, I suspect that's unlikely to happen this time because of a more conservative, states' rights tinge to the current Congress, particularly the Tea Partiers in the House, and for the practical reasons I raised in my original post.

Yes, MADD certainly lacks the clout of liquor interests, but, as I noted in my original post above, MADD is not necessarily on board with the NTSB's recommendation. (Although MADD Canada HAS called for lowering the blood-alcohol limit to .05)

Allan Loudell

I don;

Wed, May 15, 2013 7:58am
Allan Loudell: The liquor industry let it happen once. That doesn't mean they will let it happen again. One factor in going from .10 to .08 was all the lawsuits in which "dram shops" were sued when patrons left, had accidents, and killed or injured people. It was cheaper and better PR to go along with .08. People would still drink and if a few got nailed with one less drink in their system than before, it was no skin off the industry's nose. The number was high enough that people would drink. This time, the number would be low enough to start inhibiting people.

Another unwanted consequence of suburban sprawl and the auto industry's deliberate campaign to kill off mass transit. It used to be one could tie one on and stagger home from the corner bar (Think Archie Bunker at Kelsey's before Archie bought the place).

Notice how successful the liquor industry has been (except until recently in two states) in blocking legalization of marijuana? Weed is much less likely to get people into accidents (or fights, for that matter).

Wed, May 15, 2013 8:29am
I'm confused as to why. I need to see numbers before making an assessment. I've talked to brewers who make non-alcoholic beer such as O'Douls. They tout that their 0.5 brews are less alcohol than a glass of orange juice. Orange Juice? Well why not? If you're packing a couple of trillion oranges down the Florida Turnpike, won't some of them be fermented? Quite a lot probably, but we never consider the natural fermentation any time we drink Orange Juice, or its effect on kids. So to equal one beer's consumption, and let's make it a strong one at 6%, if someone chugs 12 orange juices and at 6 oz. that is not hard to do.. ( one big glass at home is 20 oz), they've had one strong beer....

Now on the other hand, when one is at .10% one is pretty drunk. Most of us would visually tell that person, dude, you can't drive. The average person getting behind the wheel after two drinks with dinner, is probably at 0.05 already... Two drinks is lunch for a lawyer.

I need to see the data on how many accidents we currently have requiring a monitoring of BAC between the .05 to .08 range... Then we would have to factor out the normal random chance of that person having had an accident anyway. If there is a significant marked difference, then that may change the equation. However, if it is statistically insignificant, (my hypothesis) then it is not worth worrying about. How many of us don't go outside when it gets cloudy on the presumption we might be the first lightning strike and disappear in a clap of thunder? Not many. If we get scared and decide to change our normal behavior, it is only in the middle of a thunderstorm when the chance of being struck is significantly higher.

I'm sure there is scientific proof that reaction time is slightly slowed. I would guess the curve would be an rising straight-line based off consumption versus reaction time. The question is whether that reaction time is significant. If you test on a flat track where there are no obstacles and you have a subject at a 0.6% who stops from 55 mph at 120 feet and a person with a 0.5% who stops from the same speed at 118 feet, then to save two feet you may wish to lower the limit. But realistically, a) if the vehicle in front was 117 feet at the time, it wouldn't make any difference whether you had a .5 or a .6. Of if there was no vehicle in front period, it wouldn't make a difference if you had a .5 or a .6. And if the difference is only two feet, how hard is the impact those last two feet? Life threatening? No. Probably the difference between being hit by 2 mph or 0 mph....

So looking at the "bang for the buck" or rewards for the effort, I can tell you this is dead on arrival....

No politician will get on board to alienate 50% of his political base for zero total gain. The nuts proposing this should be fired so those who are currently being sequestered from jobs that really are needed, can go back to work.

We once tried cutting back the legal limit to 0 %. That didn't work well at all.

Whereas there was significant evidence showing that .10 was still too much alcohol in one's system. Anything under .08 it too ridiculous to manage for a zero gain in safety.....

Mike from Delaware
Wed, May 15, 2013 8:37am
Billsmith: Cities still have that advantage of the corner bar and plenty of mass transit, but as most cities aren't all that safe to live in [Wilmington isn't alone in that regard]. Still, you're correct, suburban areas have mediocre to no mass transit, thus forcing those who've been out getting liquored-up to have either a designated driver or they themselves getting behind the wheel [given the price of taxi rides these days and the distances involved in suburban travel, that's not an option other than for wealthier folks].

I've never understood why car owners can't see that allowing DART to have an extra penny of the highway tax fund collected from gas taxes would allow DART to serve the suburban communities far better. IF even 1/3 less cars were on the roads, and those folks were riding DART buses and/or trains the roads the rest of us use would have far less congestion making our driving experience far better too. So its a win/win. A win for those who prefer to ride mass transit and a win for those who prefer to drive their own vehicle.

Actually, I think I might have an idea as to why suburbanites don't want money spent on more mass transit. I spent a summer living in suburban Atlanta about 15 years ago. One of the outlying counties that surround Atlanta is Cobb County, where Kennesaw Georgia is located. Cobb County had been quite successful in keeping Atlanta's subway system out of their county. The folks there had no problem telling you why either. Keeping the subway out of Cobb county keeps the "criminals" from downtown Atlanta out of their county [some of those folks used other words besides criminal such as minority or blacks when answering my question about why the subway stops short of Cobb County, yet goes into other suburban counties]. There was only one bus route into the edge of Cobb county from Marietta and that was the extent of any mass transit there and that route ran only into the older less influent part of the county.

So it might be reasonable to imply that racism might be part of the reason why folks oppose more mass transit because, if you look at which DART bus routes are the one's that run 7 days a week in NCC/Wilmington, from early morning to late at night, most of those serve areas with heavy minority ridership in the county. Minorities tend to be the biggest users of mass transit in non-commuter times.

I'm not saying that is the reason here in NCC, but based on my experience in Atlanta's Cobb County, it sure could be the reason.

Wed, May 15, 2013 9:19am
MikeFromDelaware: You are correct. There is an anti-urban sentiment among many suburbanites. Racism? Maybe. Classism? Probably. General fear? Most certainly. The media feed that fear with their "if it bleeds, it leads" crime coverage. I don't have the exact percentages but a lot of people in the 'burbs used to live in the city and all the media's sensationalized crime and corruption coverage makes them feel good about getting out. People end up not wanting to do anything that's going to benefit the city or the people who live in it.

The percentage of time TV devotes to Philly crime and corruption far exceeds the percentage of the audience that actually lives there. Same for the percentage of coverage one radio station and one newspaper give to Wilmington.

50 years ago, General Motors, Firestone and other automotive interests bought off politicians and bought up then privately-owned transit systems in order to force people into cars; they also pushed for the construction of freeways - often dividing towns and neighborhoods - for the same purpose. Now that train and trolley lines are gone, it's extremely expensive and sometimes impossible to get them back. LA has done well bringing back light rail, often using the exact same rights-of-way as the Pacific Electric "red cars" seen in silent comedies. Other places have been far less active or successful. Mostly, transits hire consultants and commission studies (at significant costs) but nothing happens.

But back to the original point: The fear of street crime you mentioned. Several studies, including a landmark study done at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School, show that the more people watch TV, the more afraid they are of crime - and the more they overestimate the actual frequency of crimes and the likelihood of crime happening to them. Much of the "crime problem" is the media's invention (abetting cops whose funding increases with public fear).

Other factors: Making drugs illegal also causes actual crimes and bloats crime statistics (and funding). And legal abortion has decreased the crime rates in the last 20 years, apparently by keeping potential criminals from being born.

People who complain most about taxes and government spending also seem especially eager to throw people in jail. The US has more of its population in jail than any other "First World" country and jailing people is very expensive - and usually does more harm than good in the long run. But somehow many people seem to find the idea of others in jail - including drunk drivers - emotionally satisfying.

Mike from Delaware
Wed, May 15, 2013 10:20am
I don't think drunk drivers need to be in jail. Just take away their licenses, and have the states report the removal of their licenses to the perps' insurance companies. If that approach doesn't work, then impound their vehicles [problem with that is usually someone else in that household uses that car too, but if the perp won't stop driving, then that household can do with a vehicle that's titled in the perp's name].

I'd also agree that users of illegal drugs don't need to be in prison - only sellers - especially those who sell to kids. If the government would legalize those drugs, then a company could manufacture those drugs, the government could get taxes, with the byproduct of reducing all the gun violence that seems to plague many cities, including Wilmington, as drug turf wars would end.

Wed, May 15, 2013 10:27am
I am amazed how many people actually believe D.U.I. laws are on the books to save lives. Baloney! They are there as another means of raising revenue for governments. The government issues fines, demands alcohol “education” (which is expensive). Oh yes, you must have a lawyer, thus proving once again there is honor among thieves. But there is an exception in some jurisdictions. If you have a lawyer, the fine will not be levied, particularly if your lawyer and the prosecuting attorney are drinking buddies! And by coincidence, the lawyers' fees are often the same-dollar amount as the fine would be. If you decide to buck the system and not hire a lawyer, you pay the fine.

If the effort were to save lives, the solution is simple. Do not license establishments to sell alcohol for on-site drinking. If you want to drink, you can only drink at a non-commercial establishment, such as your home. As long governments allow bars to be open, they are showing their true intent. This is simply an exercise in revenue enhancement. It is not at all about saving lives.

Wed, May 15, 2013 11:05am
Jim: The big push behind most "strict" motor vehicle laws are insurance companies. Get a ticket, any ticket, and they raise your rates. Very profitable. That's why they buy radar guns for cops. Yes, traffic laws should be enforced but the push isn't about safety, it's about money.

And if politicians and the public really wanted to make the roads safer, they'd do something about all the sources of distraction to drivers. Distraction is as, probably more, significant as booze as a cause of accidents.

Maybe the IRS should be checking on arrogant do-gooders like MADD.

Wed, May 15, 2013 12:19pm
Back to the BAC... although this study was done to provide evidence for the last push to lower BAC, it gives a rough idea of how much effect one could expect from dropping down to .05.


It was based upon all the fatal auto accidents of 1994-97, The statistical pool was 120,000. Three percent of those deaths were cause by those with a BAC .01 to .04... The range we are discussing - .05-.10 - was responsible for 5% of the accidents. Unfortunately I don't have the data to factor out the majority which I would assume would be between the .09 and the .10 range... Now into the illegal range, 7% of deaths were in the .11-.15 range, and 18% of deaths were over the .16 range... Looking over this data it appears the number between our target of .05 and .08 would probably be 3%, just as in the category that is lesser...
However, the biggest danger of all, comes from those with 00 BAC... they were responsible for 49% of all those deaths!

So if someone is not drinking... GET OFF THE ROAD, NOW!

Mike from Delaware
Wed, May 15, 2013 1:11pm
Kavips: I wouldn't be surprised if that 49% were either talking on a cell phone or texting.

Wed, May 15, 2013 1:40pm
Ok.. here are the current data... The reference year is 2011.


There were 32,367 highway fatalities. There were 9,878
alcohol-impaired driving fatalities, which represented 31 percent of all highway fatalities. In the previous study, that number was 33%. Possibly the drop of 2 points in BAC may have helped contribute to the percentage drop, although there are many other factors in play as well.

The state with the lowest proportion of alcohol highway deaths was Utah. One would expect that with it's reputation of being a state of non-drinkers. The second lowest however was New Jersey. As one of the highest consuming states of alcohol, that breaks the trend. Delaware was ranked 39th.(40th if including DC) .

Very interestingly, blue states rank in the low levels, and red states rank in the highest. Not sure what color to paint Montana, but it that is a red state now, then Delaware was the highest ranked blue state in the survey. The extreme highest was South Carolina. If the data were from 2009, I would have said they were most likely drinking heavily over concern their governor had inexplicably disappeared....

Looking over their results, I did not see any data correlating that target area between .05 and .08. All effects were already working at impairing drivers well before reaching the .05 level. I fault the methodology because one of the factors measured to make the determination was "vigilance" and "focused attention". I know I'm a lot different when driving computer simulators at the beach than I am behind the wheel my an expensive car. This data was compiled from drivers in simulators...

As I thought, they pulled from a study that showed twice as many crashes at .08 than at .04. That certainly is to be expected. But what was not mentioned was the total low number of crashes at that level. If your town has three crashes and one was over .10, another at a .08, and a third at .4, then of course there will be twice as many... The question related to us, is whether we are statistically at risk to a higher degree from a driver at .08 over one of .04. If there are only three crashes in that town, the answer is no, no matter how much doubling of the one accident one does. These numbers are theoretical of course but their use adequately shows how that this mathematical model operates.

However a more recent study found out the risk of fatal crash involvement at BACs between 0.050 and 0.079 ranged from about 3 to 17 times greater, depending on the age of the driver and the type of fatal crash. I would say that is true when you factor in teenagers.. Common sense would preclude an underage teen driver has a greater chance of an accident with one drink as opposed to zero. Another study found that at a BAC of 0.05, drivers are 1.38 times more likely to be in a crash than are sober drivers. At a BAC
of 0.08, crash risk is 2.69 times higher.... At .09 the rate is 3.54 higher, at .10 it is 4.79 higher..

Whereas I said dropping from .10 to .08 was worth it, lowering the risk from near 4.79 down to 2.69... to further drop the BAC only lowers the marginal risk from a 2.69 to a 1.38... only a marginal drop that probably is inconsequential. Keep in mind, that if you have zero alcohol, you have just as good as chance as being in an accident with someone else who has zero alcohol, so the base rate here is 1. Therefore at .05 you only have a .38 greater chance of an accident, and at .08 you have only a 1.69 greater chance of an accident.

What does this statistic mean? it means that if you drive to and from work every day for 80 years and have no accident over that time, you will have twice the risk if you do that same commute drinking every day to a .08 level. You will have a zero times 2.69 chance or zero chance of having an accident. I you have one accident over 80 years of driving, you will probably if you are at a .08 your entire driving experience, have two accidents over that time frame. If you have one accident a year sober, you will have 2 accidents a year if driving at a .08. It is less at a .07 and even less at a .06, and less still at a .05....

In sum, the NTSB concludes that BAC levels as low as 0.01 have been associated with driving-related performance impairment, and BAC levels as low as 0.05 have been associated with significantly increased risk of fatal crashes.

Unfortunately that conclusion does not relate to real world data. Most people get home without driving incidents even at .08. Unfortunately, quite a few can drive home at a .10 and without one testing blood, one would never know. I would bet that the average BAC of the Delaware Department of Justice during working hours is over a .10, based solely upon what I've seen. I would swear the judges on Delaware's Federal Court are close to that... :)

European studies in Europe show the change from a 0.08 to a 0.05 per se BAC limit reduced traffic fatalities by 8–12 percent among people aged 18–49. Finally, in Australia, fatal crashes decreased significantly in two states (by 18 percent in Queensland and by 8 percent in New South Wales) after those states lowered their per se BAC limits from 0.08 to 0.05 ......

Btw, the numbers are odd in that European study. I'll have to look to see why they chose only that classification. Usually that is done because in other classifications, the jump is statistically not so great...

Ok.. near the end the study acknowledges the this lowering of levels is counterintuitive, but results show at lowering levels to more extreme, ie Ontario fines $150 Canadian Dollar fines for levels between .05 and .08, this tends to impact behavior on all levels, even those over .10...

This is a behavior modification tool, even thought data doesn't really preclude that lives will be saved, results show they are primarily because of behavior changes near the top, because of fear over dropping of the level at the bottom.....

Pretty standard behavior modification.

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