A Washington Democrat recently introduced legislation lowering the state's legal driving limit to 0.05 BAC. The Evergreen State joins Hawaii and Utah, where state lawmakers have introduced similar bills. They are all taking directions from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which recommends that all U.S. states drop legal BAC levels from 0.08 to 0.05—if not “even lower.”
It's a fool's errand. Only about one percent of traffic fatalities involve drivers with a BAC within the disputed interval of 0.05 and 0.08. And there is no evidence to suggest that these are accidents caused by the relatively light amount of drinking. On the other hand, high-BAC and repeat DUI offenders cause 70 percent of all alcohol-related fatalities.
Legislators and traffic safety officials should target these hardcore drunk drivers, not average Americans having a glass of wine with dinner.
Not only would a 0.05 legal limit fail to significantly reduce traffic fatalities, but it would place an undue burden on social drinkers. A 120-pound woman reaches 0.05 BAC with just a few sips more than a single drink. For many drinkers, a lower threshold means kissing that happy hour drink with co-workers goodbye.
Proponents of the 0.05 BAC legal limit argue that it will result in “many fewer accidents” with “minimal disruption to current law-enforcement procedures.” Really? The courts will be clogged with the arrest of social drinkers caught in roadblocks where people are required to be tested. Why not devote already-scarce public resources to solving the real problem: High-BAC and repeat DUI offenses?
Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) doesn't support a 0.05 BAC legal limit. When the NTSB first proposed the idea in 2013, MADD's founder, Candy Lightner, called it “a waste of time.” In her words: “You could go to 0.0 and that would save lives. You could go to a 40 mph speed limit and that would save lives, but you have to look at what’s realistic."
Which brings us to proportionality. Traffic laws wisely take into account that different activities pose greater or lesser risks to society. We assign punishments accordingly. A casual drinker who consumes a beer with dinner should not be treated the same as a hardcore drunk who chugged five drinks before getting behind the wheel. Likewise, a driver who gets caught going five miles per hour over the speed limit can't be put in the same category as someone going 25 miles per hour above the legal limit. One is clearly more dangerous than the other.
While anti-alcohol legislators like Utah Rep. Norman Thurston claim that “impairment starts with the first drink,” the low level of impairment is no justification for sweeping legislation. Drinking coffee while driving or engaging in conservations can also impair our driving to a limited degree. Yet no one is proposing a ban on all distractions. Research shows that using a hands-free cellphone while driving is just as impairing as driving with a 0.08 BAC. Even greater impairment arises from from texting and driving, a much more pressing issue than lowering the legal limit.
And what about smoking marijuana before or while driving? Have you heard much about that issue from the neo-prohibition lobby?
We can't protect America's roads without getting our priorities straight. The anti-alcohol abuse programs of the 1980s have been effective. It's time to move on to more pressing highway safety concerns.