WASHINGTON — The National Transportation Safety Board last week recommended 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.
Many local law enforcement leaders in Merced County said they're still reviewing the issue, but on the surface it doesn't seem like a bad idea.
Los Banos Police Chief Gary Brizzee said he needs further research, but "to be honest, I don't see a downside to it."
"Getting drunk drivers off of the road is one of our biggest priorities in life," Brizzee said.
Merced Police Lt. Tom Trindad said he still needs to study the issue closer, but said he's in favor of anything that would make roadways safer. "I am always going to err on the side of saving lives," Trindad said.
Trindad said his personal rule is that he doesn't drive if he's had even one drink.
"People forget that driving is a divided attention task. And we take it for granted because we do it so much," Trindad said. "I think alcohol is a substance that alters the way you perceive the world, and when you (drink and drive), there can be dire consequences."
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.
Merced defense attorney Jeffery Tenenbaum said in 12 years and more than 200 cases he's seen all levels of drinking result in crashes. He said it's difficult to predict the results of a change in the law. "The standard's been dropping for decades and there certainly continues to be accidents and DUI deaths," Tenenbaum said.
The punishments for a DUI conviction are harsh, he said, including jail time, license suspension, restitution and other penalties.
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.
Merced bar and restaurant owners had mixed opinions about the idea of a change.
Greg Parle, owner of the Branding Iron, said a 0.05 threshold would certainly affect his business.
"It could probably kill most cocktail lounges," Parle said.
According to a Department of Motor Vehicles impairment chart, one drink in an hour would cause a person of 130 pounds or less to test at 0.05 percent or higher, and two drinks for anyone heavier.
In business since 1964, Parle said customers nowadays are much better at designating a driver.
"Hopefully, they'll leave it alone and continue to promote designated drivers," he said.
Oscar Torres, owner of J&R Tacos in Merced, said it's a difficult issue and important that the law stay balanced. Alcohol is a small part of his business, he said, but a law change could hurt his customer base.
"They need to be able to drink one drink, or two drinks, without worrying about what will happen," Torres said.
The DMV defines one drink as a 1 1/4-ounce shot of 80-proof liquor, 4-ounce glass of wine or 10 ounces of beer.
Pick designated driver
RC Essig, co-owner of The Partisan, said his full-service bar would see little change. Bargoers should always have plans to use a taxi, bus or designated driver, he said.
"It's not like we're in a huge city where you can't get from Point A to Point B," Essig said.
Dos Palos Police Chief Barry Mann said his officers don't often encounter drunken drivers, but he would support lowering the legal limit, even down to zero. He said many people don't understand how many drinks would exceed the limit.
Businesses potentially hurt by any threshold change may need to get creative by hiring a designated driver service, he said.
"We're in the business of saving lives," Mann said.
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 last 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.