(Columbus) - The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that states should reduce the standard for drunk driving from the current .08 blood alcohol content to .05.
More than 100 countries have adopted the .05 alcohol content standard or lower, according to a report by the board's staff. In Europe, the share of traffic deaths attributable to drunken driving was reduced by more than half within 10 years after the standard was dropped.
"Our goal is to get to zero deaths because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said. "Alcohol-impaired deaths are not accidents, they are crimes. They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will."
Timothy Huey, a DUI attorney in Columbus, doesn't think lowering the standard will make roads safer.
"You can make roads safe in Ohio by having nobody on the road," he said. "I don't think it's going to make the roads significantly safer by having it down to a .05."
Dramatic progress was made in the 1980s through the mid-1990s after the minimum drinking age was raised to 21 and the legally-allowable maximum level of drivers' blood alcohol content was lowered to .08, the report said.
Huey says states were essentially forced to go along with lowering the limit because it was tied to federal highway funding.
"This kind of reflects a movement to take impairment out of the impairment status," Huey said.
Today, drunken driving claims about 10,000 lives a year, down from over 18,000 in 1982. At that time, alcohol-related fatalities accounted for about 40 percent of highway deaths.
For the Ohio State Highway Patrol it is more about a driver's actions then a blood alcohol content level.
"Under Ohio law they can still be arrested if we believe that they're impaired by drugs, alcohol, or a combination of them," said Lt. Anne Ralston.
Technology may be part of the solution, and anti-drunken driving forces have talked of turning cars into a part of the solution. In December, the board called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the auto industry to step up their research into technology for use in all vehicles that can detect whether a driver has elevated blood alcohol without the driver breathing into a tube or taking any other action. Drivers with elevated levels would be unable to start their cars. But the technology is still years away.
"Our focus will be maintaining on our campaign which calls on additional interlocks for all convicted offenders during their probationary period and to pursue advanced technology," said Doug Scoles with the Ohio chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. He says they're remaining neutral on the issue.
Scoles says interlock systems could save a thousand lives each year and technology that won't allow a vehicle to start if the driver is impaired could save seven times that. Without these changes the legal limit doesn't matter, according to Scoles.
"They can still put the key in the ignition and turn it. As long as they can do that you're going to have repeat drunk driving offenses, people are going to get killed, they're going to get hurt," he said.
Reducing the blood alcohol limit below .08 could save over 7,000 lives a year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has estimated. Australia saw a 12 percent decline in alcohol-related deaths as a share of overall traffic fatalities when it lowered its legal limit to .05. The limit in most of Europe is also .05, and in some countries it's as low as .02.
A woman weighing less than 120 pounds can reach .05 after just one drink. A man weighing up to 160 pounds reaches .05 after two drinks.
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