Everyone wants travelers heading to Lake Lanier, family barbecues or other events to be safe this Memorial Day weekend. Too many Americans continue to die from drunk driving. However, there is little factual evidence that a new proposal to lower the blood alcohol content standard used to determine drunk driving from 0.08 to 0.05 will reduce deaths.
Lowering the standard will not save many lives. The statistics the National Transportation Safety Board used to recommend a lower standard are questionable. NTSB claims that lowering the standard will cut many of the nearly 10,000 annual deaths from alcohol-impaired driving. But of the more-than 36,000 yearly traffic fatalities in the U.S., less than 1 percent were caused by drivers with a blood alcohol content between 0.05 and 0.08. Two-thirds of fatalities involved motorists with a BAC of 0.14 or higher. Surprisingly, drivers with a BAC of 0.01 to 0.03 were involved in more fatal accidents than drivers with a BAC of 0.08 to 0.10.
Studies indicate that any number of things — talking on a cell phone, eating, adjusting the radio or having kids in the car — can make it more likely for a driver to have an accident than having a 0.08 BAC. When the BAC was last lowered, from 0.08 to 0.10, alcohol-related traffic fatalities actually increased.
Lower BAC limits do not necessarily lower deaths. Studies from Denmark and the state of South Australia after their governments lowered the BAC limit from 0.08 to 0.05 found that the number of alcohol-related fatalities did not significantly decrease.
Alcohol’s effect varies by person. Setting a 0.05 standard (one to two standard drinks) will criminalize many safe drivers. A 0.04 BAC level may impair some people’s driving. Others may not be impaired, even at 0.09. But drivers with a legal 0.07 BAC level can be pulled over and charged with other serious offenses, such as reckless driving. Reckless driving in Georgia is a criminal act that can lead to hefty fines, court-ordered driver’s education, the loss of driving privileges and up to a year in jail.
Driving, whether alcohol is involved or not, will never be risk free. In 2012 nationwide, there were 10,000 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. This was a substantial decrease from 1950, when there were 55,000 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Driving deaths have declined by 52 percent since 1982.
The good news for Georgians is that NTSB is an advisory bureau; it cannot change the law. Impaired driving is a serious problem, but Georgians should tell the state General Assembly and Congress to examine solutions that actually work. Instead of focusing on drunk driving, law enforcement agencies should focus on reckless driving. Did a driver violate traffic laws or cause an accident? If the goal is safer roads, it shouldn’t matter if the driver had a beer or was distracted by a cell phone. Making the legal limit even lower isn’t going to make roads safer.
Baruch Feigenbaum is a Transportation Policy Analyst with Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.