The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended this week that states lower the legal blood-alcohol threshold to 0.05 percent from 0.08 percent.
The NTSB said as many as 500 to 800 lives could be saved each year if the more stringent blood alcohol concentration (BAC) guideline becomes law. The board noted that other countries with the lower standard, including many in Europe, have had success curbing drunken drivers.
"Since 1995, the percentage of alcohol-related fatalities has been stuck at about one-third of annual highway deaths," says NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman. "In 2011, nearly 10,000 people died and another 173,000 were injured. Every year, with those 10,000 deaths, there are at least 10,000 reasons to tackle this issue. We know there's more, much more, that can be done."
Beyond the lower BAC, which is used to legally determine if someone is too impaired to drive, the safety board also recommended the following:
When it comes to drinking and driving, how much is considered too much? There are several factors influencing blood-alcohol levels, including gender, weight and what you ate recently. But the New York Times reports that, in general, a 180-pound man could drink four beers or glasses of wine in about 90 minutes and still be below the current 0.08 limit. He could consume only three with the proposed 0.05 threshold. During the same time span, a 130-pound woman could probably have three drinks and be under the 0.08, but that drops to two drinks with the 0.05.
The NTSB is an independent agency that investigates transportation accidents and makes safety recommendations. Although influential, the board can only advise; changes in laws are up to state and federal legislatures. However, it is common for federal highway construction funding to be withheld from states that do not pass laws recommended by the NTSB that are supported by Congress.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) said in a statement that the lower BAC was a good step -- but believes other safeguards are also needed. The advocacy group wants the development of more advanced technology that would prevent someone who has been drinking from operating a vehicle.
"As a mother whose child was killed by a drunk driver, the most important thing to me is preventing as many families as possible from suffering similar tragedies," Jan Withers, MADD's national president, said in a statement. "MADD is focused on eliminating this completely preventable tragedy from our roadways."
But the American Beverage Institute (ABI), a restaurant trade association, blasted the recommendation. The existing 0.08 standard still makes sense, the AIB said in a statement, and pointed out that the average woman reaches the 0.05 level after only one drink. The ABI added that more than 70 percent of deaths related to drunken driving are caused by motorists with a BAC of at least 0.15 percent, which amounts to as much as seven drinks.
"This recommendation is ludicrous," Sarah Longwell, the ABI's managing director, said in a statement. "Further restricting the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to stop hard-core drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel."
The fallout from a DUI violation is severe, including possible jail time, high court costs and license suspension. And it doesn't get any better with your insurer. Penny Gusner, consumer analyst with CarInsurance.com, says your rates can increase anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent - or even significantly higher, depending on your state laws. (See: "DUI and car insurance: What happens next?")
"For instance, in Colorado, your rates may spike up to 30 percent after a DUI violation, while in North Carolina, you get docked 12 points under the Safe Driver Incentive Points system for a DUI, which could cause your rates to jump 340 percent," she says.
A drunken driving offense usually stays on your record for at least three years and sometimes five years or more, again, depending on where you live. Gusner points out that California prevents anyone with a DUI conviction from getting a safe driver discount for 10 years. And your premiums remain high as long as the DUI is on your record. (See: "Got a ticket? You could be paying for years.")
Many states also require drivers to file an SR-22 once their license is reinstated after a DUI. The SR-22 is a certification of financial responsibility and typically must be carried by the driver for three years, although that can range from one to five years, depending on the state, Gusner says. (See: "What is an SR-22?")
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