No one is in favor of drunk driving. Don’t do it. Now that I’ve completed the ritualistic incantation prior to writing a piece about drunk driving, let’s hit the jump and discuss the latest proposal from the NTSB.
Yesterday the NTSB began a campaign using its bully pulpit to encourage state legislatures to adopt a per se blood alcohol content limit of 0.05%, a significant reduction from the current standard of 0.08%. It’s common in other countries, particularly European ones, to have the limit set that low. However, as with, well, everything, at some point you reach a point of diminishing returns.
The usual suspects are lining up on both sides. The NTSB has no regulatory authority, so it can’t impose this. However, as with the campaigns to lower the limit from 0 .10 to 0.08 and the push for mandatory seatbelt usage, eventually the threat of withholding Federal highway funds from states that don’t adopt the lower limit will bring the states in line. The insurance companies are on board, of course, with the NTSB’s recommendation. Advocacy from MADD will most certainly begin apace.
On the other side you have the MOD squad, represented in the Post piece I linked to above by Sarah Longwell of the American Beverage Institute. Ms. Longwell pointed out that fatalities aren’t occurring at .05 to .08. They occur most often at .16 or higher. God speed, Ms. Longwell. You’re about to get the opportunity to really earn what I’m sure is the quite handsome salary that ABI pays you.
So, in a nutshell the facts are these: The NTSB proposes lowering the per se BAC limit to 0.05%. They have no legal authority to enforce such a recommendation, but they don’t need it because their sister agencies and (let’s not forget this) private associations like the IIHS and MADD have both the legal means and the moral authority to accomplish what the NTSB wants anyway. They’ll work to push it through.
On the other side you have the ABI and… selfish alcoholics? People who don’t care to get blitzed (and then endanger themselves and their fellow citizens) allied with the greedy capitalists (with blood stained hands) looking to turn a profit are the only ones who will do much more than raise token opposition to this proposal.
That’s the problem. The motives and the storyline are set and the characters have all been cast. Rant all you want about “unconscionable Federal power grabs” and wave your dog-eared copies of Thomas Paine. A betting man would figure that the limit will be 0.05% before the decade is over and buy stock in O’Douls.
We can deride the NTSB, IIHS, and MADD as “nanny staters” and the like, but in the end, they’re not wrong. Places, such as Australia, that have lowered their limit to 0.05 have seen a reduction in DUI related fatalities. 12% in the case of Australia. That’s not nothing.
To argue the other side means that we have to recognize, and agree to live with, an “acceptable level of DUI related fatalities,” to paraphrase the British during the hey- day of IRA bombings and Ulstermen knee cappings,Who wants to stand up and say “Almost 10,000 men, women, and children were killed in DUI related crashes last year and I say that’s still not enough!”
If we could guarantee that only drunk drivers and, perhaps, their passengers would be the only fatalities in DUI related crashes, then most of us would be on board, the way laws requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets have been repealed. It doesn’t work that way. Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the Carrollton bus crash. While largely forgotten elsewhere, it approaches something close to a state day of mourning in Kentucky. The NTSB wasn’t particularly shy about using the anniversary as a backdrop for its announcement either.
Of course, a 0.05% limit wouldn’t have mattered in the Carrollton case. The driver who hit the bus, causing it to erupt into a fireball that killed 27 people, was at a 0.24% BAC level. Sentenced to just 16 years, Larry Mahoney spent less than 10 in prison after a jury of his peers elected to convict him of involuntary manslaughter instead of Murder.
So what’s to be done? Or not done? I’ll close with these few personal points and then turn it over to the B&B to hash out in the comments thread. I don’t drink very much. A six pack of Bud Light in the fridge will normally last me month. Lowering the BAC limit to 0.05% won’t affect me personally. Two drinks at dinner won’t put a guy in my weight class in any jeopardy of violating per se.
However, a single drink would probably put a 120 lb (or less) woman in jeopardy of per se. Two drinks will do it now at the 0.08% limit for many women. That’s not “fair,” not that “fair” has anything to do with anything any more.
I was also never much of a “drunk hunter” in my patrol days. I’d take a DUI if it rolled in front of me, but I was never one to lurk around bars and wait to see a drunk stumble out to his car. Some guys, particularly in some of the third shift squads that overlapped with me on second shift, were like that. I never cared for those guys, not because I didn’t consider ‘sporting” to fish for drunks in a baited pond or because I felt sorry for the poor schmucks they were popping for DUI. I didn’t like those guys because they’d get themselves tied up on a DUI arrest for two to three hours, leaving me and my fellow second shift officers to continue to catch calls after we’d already been running call to call for six hours before they came on shift. (Not particularly noble, but it is what it is.)
I can say that of the DUIs I did arrest back in the day, I never had one that I stopped on suspicion of DUI for driving in what we will call a stereotypically drunk manner (weaving, too slow, crossing the center line, etc.) who was under a 0.10. Sure, I caught a few that were less than that after I stopped them for something else that sober drivers sometimes do, like running a light or an equipment violation, and detected alcohol when I made contact with them. But for the behaviors that we all generally recognize as “drunk driving?” Never under a 0.10 and usually 0.12 or greater. I know, I know. Anecdotal evidence, particularly personal anecdotal evidence, doesn’t count.
What counts are studies, which the NTSB has in droves. In fact, one of the little nuggets in their announcement yesterday was that their research has shown that impairment can start as low as 0.01%. Take a healthy swig during Communion and risk losing your license? Admittedly, that’s hyperbole, but it’s not far off.
I’m not in favor of drunk driving. No one is. But I truly believe that we’re past the point of diminishing returns on per se BAC. Arresting more people for having drunk less alcohol is bad policy. Keep the levels the same, but let’s get serious about the penalties. DUI law as it’s currently written serves mainly to feed the courts and the lawyers while ensuring that the suspects get off with relatively light penalties particularly for the first and second offenses. Getting a DUI will cost you a lot in court costs and lawyer’s fees, but it doesn’t really hurt you. If DUI is as deadly as we all seem to believe it is, then let’s stiffen the jail terms and driver’s licensing penalties for it and concentrate on waging a little shock and awe on first and second offenders. That would be a better tribute to the victims of crimes like Carrollton.