Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Three columns today: The chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board writes about the NTSB recommendation to lower the blood alcohol content used to determine drunk driving. A Mothers Against Drunk Driving official says a lower BAC is only part of the fight, especially in Georgia, where ignition-lock legislation needs to be updated. And a transportation analyst writes that a lower threshold won’t necessarily reduce deaths.
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By Deborah A.P. Hersman
On May 14 — the 25th anniversary of our nation’s deadliest drunk-driving crash, which killed 24 children and three adults in Carrollton, Ky. — the National Transportation Safety Board voted unanimously to issue recommendations to help this country eliminate alcohol-impaired driving.
The recommendations call for stronger laws, swifter enforcement and expanded use of technology for alcohol detection.
Bold actions are needed to achieve bold results.
Bold results are needed. In this country, on average, one person dies in a crash involving a drunk driver every hour. And every hour, 20 others are injured, including three with debilitating injuries. That adds up quickly to yearly totals of nearly 10,000 deaths and 173,000 injuries, including 27,000 people suffering life-altering injuries.
The annual price tag? Nearly $130 billion. The fact is, we can’t afford not to address this problem.
A great deal of progress occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, when states dropped blood alcohol content limits from 0.10 to 0.08 and raised the drinking age to 21. However, in the past decade, there have been few major steps and little improvement. In fact, momentum is stalled. Since 1995, drunk-driving deaths as a percentage of total highway fatalities have stubbornly remained around 30 percent.
That’s why the NTSB, an independent federal agency that investigates transportation accidents, conducts safety studies and issues recommendations to improve safety, sharpened its focus on alcohol-impaired driving. The set of 19 recommendations are the capstone of a year-long effort to thoroughly examine this national epidemic. The recommendation that calls on states to reduce the BAC limit to 0.05 or lower is getting the most attention.
The research shows that a driver with a BAC of 0.05 is 38 percent more likely to be involved in a fatal crash. When a driver’s BAC reaches 0.07, that crash risk is doubled. We also know that at 0.05, most drivers experience diminished visual function, increased drowsiness and decreased vigilance. Reducing the BAC limit will reduce crashes and save lives.
The United States has always been a world leader in transportation safety. Sadly, on this deadly issue, we are lagging behind the rest of the world. Worldwide, more than 100 countries on six continents have BAC limits of .05 or lower, and they are saving lives.
To eliminate alcohol-impaired driving, it will take more than just lowering the BAC limit. That’s why the NTSB recommended interventions including swifter enforcement, more effective sanctions, addressing the challenges of repeat offenders, and expanded use of technology, such as mandatory ignition interlocks for all offenders and expeditious development of in-vehicle alcohol-detection systems.
We’ve already heard from the naysayers who say “we cannot” or “we need not” take action. With nearly 10,000 people killed every year, there are 10,000 reasons why we must.
Deborah A.P. Hersman is chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
By Jan Withers
Thirty years ago, Mothers Against Drunk Driving made drunk driving socially unacceptable; yet from 2007 to 2011, more than 1,750 lives were lost because a driver in Georgia made the wrong choice to drink and drive. It’s time for Georgia to join the growing list of states requiring all convicted drunk drivers to use an ignition interlock device. This is a key recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board.
Last week, the NTSB also recommended lowering the blood alcohol content limit from 0.08 to 0.05. But a lower BAC limit is just one factor in a difficult puzzle to reduce drunk-driving crashes, injuries and fatalities. Like the NTSB, MADD is concerned about the toll drunk driving has had on our roads, representing roughly a third of all highway deaths. MADD believes our Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving, launched in 2006, is the best solution to save the most lives as soon as possible.
This comprehensive, multi-faceted campaign is based on research, endorsements from organizations such as the NTSB, and grassroots efforts across the country. The success of the campaign is seen in countermeasures in use today, such as high-visibility enforcement, legislative goals for tomorrow — ignition interlocks for all offenders in every state — and a Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety to eliminate drunk driving entirely. The campaign is based on the .08 BAC limit. When fully implemented, it is expected to save 8,000 lives per year.
As a victim and the national president of MADD, I am proud of the campaign’s success. Since 2006, we have passed some form of ignition-interlock legislation in every state; most importantly, 18 states have passed ignition-interlock laws for all drunk-driving offenders at 0.08 or greater. More than 100 million Americans are now protected by these laws, which have reduced drunk-driving deaths by more than 30 percent in many states. Congress fully codified our campaign as part of federal legislation to reauthorize the nation’s highway programs known as MAP-21.
MADD believes the safest course of action is to never drink and drive. The most effective legislation to save lives in Georgia is for lawmakers to focus their attention on dealing with the entire drunk-driving problem and requiring ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers. (Only repeat offenders in Georgia must use them now.)
Yes, the proposed House Bill 671 would require ignition interlocks for first-time convicted drunk drivers with a blood alcohol content of 0.15 or greater. But is a 0.15 BAC interlock law good enough for Georgia’s families? The answer is no.
MADD asks lawmakers to amend HB 671 in 2014 to require ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers with an illegal blood alcohol content of 0.08 or greater. Then, we will see the day when we there will no longer be drunk driving victims in Georgia and across the country.
There is so much to lose and even more to gain with full implementation of the campaign. It is the right way, the only way, to fully rid our county of the drunk driver.
Jan Withers is national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
By Baruch Feigenbaum
Everyone wants travelers heading to Lake Lanier, family barbecues or other events to be safe this Memorial Day weekend. Too many Americans continue to die from drunk driving. However, there is little factual evidence that a new proposal to lower the blood alcohol content standard used to determine drunk driving from 0.08 to 0.05 will reduce deaths.
Lowering the standard will not save many lives. The statistics the National Transportation Safety Board used to recommend a lower standard are questionable. NTSB claims that lowering the standard will cut many of the nearly 10,000 annual deaths from alcohol-impaired driving. But of the more-than 36,000 yearly traffic fatalities in the U.S., less than 1 percent were caused by drivers with a blood alcohol content between 0.05 and 0.08. Two-thirds of fatalities involved motorists with a BAC of 0.14 or higher. Surprisingly, drivers with a BAC of 0.01 to 0.03 were involved in more fatal accidents than drivers with a BAC of 0.08 to 0.10.
Studies indicate that any number of things — talking on a cell phone, eating, adjusting the radio or having kids in the car — can make it more likely for a driver to have an accident than having a 0.08 BAC. When the BAC was last lowered, from 0.08 to 0.10, alcohol-related traffic fatalities actually increased.
Lower BAC limits do not necessarily lower deaths. Studies from Denmark and the state of South Australia after their governments lowered the BAC limit from 0.08 to 0.05 found that the number of alcohol-related fatalities did not significantly decrease.
Alcohol’s effect varies by person. Setting a 0.05 standard (one to two standard drinks) will criminalize many safe drivers. A 0.04 BAC level may impair some people’s driving. Others may not be impaired, even at 0.09. But drivers with a legal 0.07 BAC level can be pulled over and charged with other serious offenses, such as reckless driving. Reckless driving in Georgia is a criminal act that can lead to hefty fines, court-ordered driver’s education, the loss of driving privileges and up to a year in jail.
Driving, whether alcohol is involved or not, will never be risk free. In 2012 nationwide, there were 10,000 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. This was a substantial decrease from 1950, when there were 55,000 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Driving deaths have declined by 52 percent since 1982.
The good news for Georgians is that NTSB is an advisory bureau; it cannot change the law. Impaired driving is a serious problem, but Georgians should tell the state General Assembly and Congress to examine solutions that actually work. Instead of focusing on drunk driving, law enforcement agencies should focus on reckless driving. Did a driver violate traffic laws or cause an accident? If the goal is safer roads, it shouldn’t matter if the driver had a beer or was distracted by a cell phone. Making the legal limit even lower isn’t going to make roads safer.
Baruch Feigenbaum is transportation analyst with the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.