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Government report urges reducing DUI threshold to 0.05 percent

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wanted to know what strategies for reducing drunk driving have been proven effective, so it commissioned a report from a panel of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. That report is in. Although the panel recommended a mix of evidence-based approaches, its top recommendation may come as a surprise. It urges all states to reduce their legal DUI threshold to 0.05 percent.

What would that mean for the average alcohol consumer? Most men would have to draw the line at no more than two or three alcoholic beverages per sitting. Most women could have no more than two. As you may know, your individual degree of intoxication depends on a number of factors, including the amount of alcohol you consume, your body weight, your gender, your metabolism, whether you are on certain medications, how much you have eaten and others.

While the drop from 0.08 to 0.05 may seem surprising, the fact is that over 100 countries have already made the change. In Europe, the lower threshold has been in place for nearly a decade -- and the incidence of drunk-driving fatalities there has dropped by more than half. Moreover, last year, Utah dropped its blood-alcohol threshold from 0.08 to 0.05, although the change hasn't yet gone into effect.

Restaurant and beverage industry groups oppose the proposal. They say a reduction in the DUI threshold would do little to deter people with high blood-alcohol levels or repeat offenders, whom it says are responsible for the vast majority of DUI-related fatalities. Instead of addressing problem drunk drivers, the change would merely increase the number of drivers considered to be drunk.

Regardless, it seems likely that NHTSA will take the proposal very seriously. Another federal agency focused on traffic safety, the National Transportation Safety Board, has already called for a reduction in the legal blood-alcohol level to 0.05 percent.

"Alcohol-impaired driving remains the deadliest and costliest danger on U.S. roads," the report says. Every day, 29 people are killed in the U.S. in alcohol-related crashes. Many more are injured. Overall, we see around 10,000 drunk-driving deaths every year.

In addition to lowering the BAC threshold, the scientific panel recommended a "coordinated multilevel approach" using strategies that have been effective in the past, such as:

  • Significant increases to state alcohol taxes
  • Reducing the hours and days alcohol is available in stores, bars and restaurants
  • Cracking down on sales to people who are already intoxicated or underage
  • Funding anti-alcohol marketing campaigns

Will Pennsylvania reduce its DUI threshold? Whether doing so would reduce DUI-related fatalities is unclear, but it could sharply increase the number of drunk driving arrests.

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