NTSB proposes lowering legal blood-alcohol level for drivers to - wave3.com-Louisville News, Weather & Sports

NTSB proposes lowering legal blood-alcohol level for drivers to .05

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Bill Bell Bill Bell
Sarah Longwell Sarah Longwell

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE ) - If you've ever had a glass of wine or two and thought you were safe to drive, that might all be changing.

A controversial recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board would lower the legal blood-alcohol limit from point .08 to .05. Opponents call the idea ludicrous. As our investigation discovered, there's not a lot of data right now to support the idea that drivers below .08 are all that dangerous.

Still, the NTSB is convinced lowering the legal limit would save lives. The idea is slowly gaining traction.

[WEB EXTRA: Drivers involved in fatal traffic crashes by state and their BAC]

Sarah Longwell, the director of the American Beverage Institute, an industry lobbying group in Washington, D.C., has been vocal in her opposition to the plan.

"This is a ludicrous idea that would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior," Longwell said.

Bill Bell, director of the Kentucky Office of Highway Safety, believes the idea would save lives.

"The evidence that the NTSB has is that people are impaired at .05," Bell said. "That's the bottom line. They're impaired. Their judgement and reaction time is affected."

A report released by the NTSB in the summer of 2013 says the percentage of traffic fatalities caused by drinking and driving has hovered around 30 percent since the mid 1990s. That's about 10,000 lives lost per year. The NTSB wants to reduce the number to zero and believes lowering the legal blood-alcohol content (BAC) level to .05 would help do that. It's a blood-alcohol level a woman could reach after just a glass or two of wine.

A review of federal data for the most recent year shows 21 percent of fatal accidents involved drivers who were legally drunk. But only two percent involved drivers in that .05 to .08 range the NTSB now wants to make illegal. In Louisville, log sheets from Metro Corrections show the average BAC of people pulled over is .16, twice the current limit.

"Those are the people who are really causing problems, so we've got to think about how do we go after them, not go after someone who has had one glass of wine with their dinner," Longwell said. "The fact is, you could have a glass of wine and be perfectly fine."

Jana Price, Senior Human Performance Investigator and author of the NTSB study, said lowering the legal BAC would lead to greater awareness and an overall reduction in blood-alcohol levels of people involved in accidents. Price said that's what happened 10 years ago when the Department of Transportation (DOT) forced states to lower the limit to .08.

"We're not opposed to drinking," Price said. "We want to stop drinking and driving. Drinking and driving should be separated, and impaired levels of drinking and driving should not be allowed." She added, "This is an important recommendation to the NTSB, and we think it's important states do this."

So far, the DOT has not publicly supported reducing the BAC as it did in 2003. One source to us, "No state has ever adopted a .05 BAC law, and we don't have any data on the effectiveness of implementing such a measure in the U.S."

In January, Kentucky joined a handful of states where legislation has been introduced to make the change to .05, but Representative Hubert Collins of Wittensville said the bill hasn't gotten much support. Even groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving have not come out in favor of point .05.

"With regard to the NTSB's recommendation for states to lower the legal BAC limit to drive from .08 to .05, MADD does not take a position," said national spokeswoman Carol Ronis. "MADD continues to remain focused on our Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving, which is based on a .08 BAC limit and has been structured to maximize the number of lives saved as quickly as possible."

That doesn't make the change impossible, however. The American Beverage Institute said people thought lowering the limit to .08 would never happen until the Department of Transportation started withholding highway money from states that didn't make the change.

The NTSB has asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an arm of the DOT, to start offering incentives to states to go to .05 by offering grants to those that do it. If the NHTSA agrees, that could be the first step.

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