Richard Berman

Legislators need to back off BAC reform

Berman on Offense

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors and management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

Over a decade ago, public safety advocates convinced Congress and state lawmakers that lowering the legal limit from 0.10- to 0.08-percent blood alcohol content, or BAC, would save 500 to 600 lives per year. But lowering the legal limit hasn’t been the promised panacea to our nation’s drunk-driving woes.

The raw number of deaths related to drunk driving has fallen dramatically in the past 15 years, but this declining fatality rate has mirrored the overall decrease in traffic deaths. As vehicle safety technologies like air bags and other impact reduction features improved, and Americans increased their use of seat belts and car seats, traffic deaths have drastically declined, in general.

Lowering the legal BAC limit to 0.08 percent didn’t work, but that’s not stopping activists from doubling down — way down — on this failed strategy by recommending lowering the legal limit even further to 0.05 percent. That’s the BAC level some people can reach after a single drink.

In May the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, became the first federal traffic agency to officially endorse a 0.05-percent legal limit. The American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, and other public health organizations already support a lower standard. Though other activists haven’t jumped on board — Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, have
declined to endorse the policy — the NTSB’s endorsement of a near ban on responsible drinking before driving is a worrying signal.

Just look at the 0.08-percent BAC battle as reference. MADD was founded in 1980, just as the 0.08-percent BAC battle began. The NTSB officially endorsed a 0.08-percent limit in 1982, only a year before Utah became the first state to adopt it. With the NTSB’s stamp of approval, other state lawmakers began proposing and slowly passing legislation to lower legal limits.

In 1998 Congress gave states a monetary incentive to lower their limits. And by the time Congress passed a 2000 law heavily penalizing states that did not limit maximum driver BAC to 0.08 percent by withholding highway funding, 19 states already had such laws on the books. Once Congress threatened state budgets, it only took four years for the remaining states to fall in line.

Though 22 years passed from the NTSB’s endorsement until Montana became the last state to adopt the 0.08-percent limit in 2004, today’s 0.05-percent BAC movement should be even more troubling for members of the hospitality industry.

A recent study of Denmark’s 0.05-percent BAC limit did not find a decrease in alcohol-related crashes in the first year after the law was adopted, but it did find an increase in the number of drivers who said they would not consume any alcohol away from home to avoid violating the law.

Imposing such a low legal limit won’t deter the hard-core drunk drivers from drinking. The average BAC of a drunk driver involved in a fatal crash is 0.16  percent — twice the current legal limit. But research shows that it will stop responsible social drinkers from consuming any alcohol if they are driving. 

And social drinkers have much stiffer penalties to worry about should they be convicted of driving under the influence. When the 0.08-percent limit went into effect, ignition interlock laws didn’t exist. But MADD has successfully pushed nearly 20 states into passing laws that require first-time drunk-driving offenders to install ignition interlocks, which prevent car engines from being turned on if a driver’s BAC is above the legal limit. Activists are heavily lobbying Congress to mandate such laws nationwide.

Also lurking just around the corner is the completion of the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, technology that will be installed in all cars and seamlessly test a driver’s BAC before allowing the car to start. Lowering the national standard to 0.05 percent will effectively eliminate responsible alcohol consumption prior to driving, unless you don’t care if your car starts.

The hospitality industry cannot be lulled into a false sense of security by claims from MADD and NHTSA that they aren’t considering supporting a 0.05-percent limit. Several state lawmakers have already pledged to introduce such legislation next year. It’s imperative to stop the momentum for this prohibitionist policy before it picks up further.

Richard Berman is president of Berman & Co., a Washington-based communications firm.