The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

May 15, 2013

Local officials react to feds proposal to lower blood-alcohol limits

From staff, wire reports
The News Courier

— A proposal Tuesday to lower the legal limit for drunk driving would save 1,000 lives a year according to the federal agency making the recommendation.

The National Transportation Safety Board voted Tuesday to recommend that all 50 states lower from 0.08 to 0.05 the blood-alcohol concentration that constitutes drunk driving.

The NTSB is an investigative safety agency that has no authority to order changes to state or federal law. Each state would have to decide whether to accept the NTSB’s recommendation, then each state’s Department of Transportation would have to decide whether to endorse it. Some key Athens and Limestone County law-enforcement official weighed in on the issue Tuesday.

District attorney

Limestone County district Attorney Brian Jones supports lowering the limit.

“The NTSB are the experts in this area,” he said. “I think that they have done a lot of research, and we look forward to any change the state of Alabama would implement towards lowering the impairment threshold.”

He does not believe a proposed 0.05 limit would be too low.

“Research shows that impairment begins with the first drink,” he said. “By 0.05 BAC, most drivers experience a decline in both cognitive and visual functions, which significantly increases the risk of a serious crash. Currently, more than 100 countries on six continents have BAC limits set at 0.05 or lower.” 

Each time the states lower the allowable BAC, “more people who are impaired are taken off the road to the betterment of our community,” Jones said.

Lowering the limit would not be a problem for his office, he said.

“Not at all. Through pretrial diversion and jail, our office has an aggressive stance toward DUI and we will continue to prosecute according to the laws that we are given.”

Police chief 

Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson also supports lowering the limit, if amenable to state lawmakers. 

“I do believe one death that is preventable is one too many,” Johnson said. “Everyone handles alcohol differently and, unfortunately, some make the choice to drive when they have been drinking. I have been involved with several families over the years that have lost loved ones in accidents that involved alcohol. I expect in all those cases the families would support lowering the legal limit. Our department will enforce the laws of Alabama as the legislative branch sees fit to make them. Our officers are trained to detect a driver that has had too much to drink and I don’t believe it would cause any issues enforcing lower limits.”

Sheriff

Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely said he had not had time to consider the matter but said he would review the accident statistics associated with such a lowering.

“I am not saying I’m opposed, but we already have a vehicle to address (people with BAC under 0.08).”

Motorists who appear to be driving impaired may be pulled over by law enforcement officers and arrested for driving under the influence even if they do not meet or exceed the legal limit of 0.08, Blakely said.

“I haven’t given it a lot of thought because we don’t work traffic so much as police and troopers, but we still look for drunks on the road.”

A spokesperson for the Limestone County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Opposition

Not everyone supports such a change. The recommendation prompted criticism from restaurant trade groups.

“This recommendation is ludicrous,” said Sarah Longwell, managing director of American Beverage Institute. “Moving from 0.08 to 0.05 would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior. Further restricting the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to stop hardcore drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel.”

Impaired

BAC reflects the percentage of alcohol in one’s blood. The NTSB reports that at 0.05 BAC, some drivers begin having difficulties with depth perception and other visual functions. At 0.07, cognitive abilities become impaired. At 0.05 BAC, the risk of having an accident increases by 39 percent. At 0.08 BAC, the risk of having an accident increases by more than 100 percent, according to NTSB.

The agency also estimates that nearly 10,000 people die in alcohol-related traffic accidents each year, with some 170,000 people injured. The rate was about 20,000 deaths per year 30 years ago, according tot he NTSB.

The NTSB estimates that if all 50 states changed their standard to .05, nearly 1,000 lives could be saved each year.  It is also considering other steps to help bring down the death rates on America’s roads.