WASHINGTON — The National Transportation Safety Board recommended Tuesday that states lower their threshold for drunken driving with the goal of reducing alcohol-related fatal crashes, which have held steady for much of the past 15 years.
The board voted 5-0 to encourage states to change the minimum blood alcohol concentration from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent or less. Since Utah became the first state to adopt the 0.08 percent standard 30 years ago, the number of U.S. residents killed in alcohol-related crashes has fallen by nearly half, but nearly 10,000 still die every year.
In California, law enforcement can arrest a driver with a BAC lower than 0.08 percent if the officer determines that the driver is impaired.
Ceres Police Chief Art de Werk pointed out that the threshold for impairment for drivers of commercial vehicles is 0.04 percent. "A 0.05 implies an even greater amount of impairment, so absolutely that ought to be given consideration," he said.
NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said that while the United States prides itself on transportation safety, it lags behind its peers in cutting drunken driving fatalities. She noted that European Union countries had slightly exceeded their goal of cutting such deaths in half.
"Impaired driving remains one of the biggest killers in the United States," Hersman said.
The unanimous vote came exactly 25 years after the nation's worst alcohol-related crash, near Carrollton, Ky.
On May 14, 1988, a church group was returning home from a trip to the Kings Island amusement park near Cincinnati when a pickup going the wrong way on Interstate 71 crashed into the group's bus. It ruptured the fuel tank and ignited a fire that quickly engulfed the bus. Twenty-four children and three adults were killed.
The pickup driver, Larry Mahoney, had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.24 percent, more than twice the legal limit in Kentucky at the time. A jury convicted Mahoney of manslaughter and he served nearly 11 years in prison.
Modesto defense attorney Ruben Villalobos said the majority of injury and fatal DUI accidents are a result of a blood alcohol content much higher than 0.08 percent. In the past decade, he has defended some 1,500 clients in DUI cases.
"I don't think the reduction can be scientifically justified, but we don't just make laws based only on science, but what is good public policy," he said.
Villalobos thinks a 0.05 percent limit would be more clear-cut in that most people would learn they could have just one or two drinks before reaching that limit.
It's the knowledge of a lower limit that would result in better judgment overall, experts agree.
"Anything that brings awareness and a second thought from a person that is consuming alcohol before getting behind the wheel is a win for the driving public," said Modesto police officer Joseph Torres. "If states can buy off on a lower BAC, it will hit that reset button in people's minds."
Torres has made more than 100 DUI arrests and said there is nothing worse than notifying the family of a person killed as a result of driving under the influence.
The NTSB has no enforcement power over the states, so the change would have to come from state legislatures and governors. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Tuesday that it would help states that decide to implement the recommendation, and encouraged them to take other steps that would prevent impaired drivers from getting behind the wheel.
As recently as 2000, 31 states had a limit of 0.10 percent, but Congress passed a law that year that allowed the U.S. Department of Transportation to withhold highway funding from states that didn't fall in line. Delaware was the last to comply, in 2004.
Not everyone would support the lower limit. Sarah Longwell, managing director of the National Beverage Institute, a restaurant industry group, called the NTSB recommendation "ludicrous." She and other opponents of the 0.05 percent limit said that law enforcement resources were better spent on the worst offenders instead of what she called moderate drinkers.
"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," she said in a statement.
On mobile? For a graphic of Stanislaus County DUI cases and a drink chart guide, click here.