Opinion: Michigan needs a tougher drunken driving law

Nicholas J. Smith

When it comes to our national laws and culture around drunken driving, the United States is persistently complacent, with a regrettable record.

California Highway Patrol Sgt. Jaimi Kenyon blows into a breathalyzer held by Sacramento Police Corporal Luke Moseley during a demonstration of devices used to test drivers suspected of impaired driving Wednesday, May 10, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif. Breathalyzers are commonly used to detect alcohol but a new device tested by three of California's largest counties, can detect the presence of drugs in saliva within five minutes. Some officers and lawmakers want the devices used statewide after voters passed Proposition 64 in November, legalizing the recreation douse of marijuana.

More than 12,000 Americans die annually in crashes involving some level of alcohol – a number that has been stubbornly high for decades.

Recently, we’ve seen evidence of a potential sea change. It started last year, when Utah became the first state to adopt a .05 alcohol concentration level for its drivers – a tactic other industrialized countries have embraced for years. Now Michigan has joined California, New York and Oregon by introducing legislation to lower the legal limit. Rep. Abdullah Hammoud has shown true leadership that other states can refer to as they consider similar bills. 

Such important legislation, now embraced by a handful of states, could create a ripple effect, and drivers should hope it does. Numerous studies clearly show a correlation between lower alcohol limits and fewer deaths.

A 2017 National Safety Council poll found 96 percent of Americans are concerned about drunken drivers, citing them as their biggest traffic safety concern. Fifty-eight percent said they would support moving to a .05 alcohol concentration limit.

Support undoubtedly stems from the significant death toll. One person dies every 41 minutes in an alcohol-related crash. Alcohol was involved in 34 percent of all traffic fatalities in 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of those deaths, 1,873 were attributed to drivers with blood alcohol content (BAC) levels under the national legal limit of .08. This underscores not only the need for stronger laws, but also for better education around where impairment begins, because it begins well before .08.

Impairment begins with the first drink.

Our attention, reaction time and decision-making are all impacted after the first few sips of alcohol. With an alcohol concentration of 0.05 – the equivalent of two to three drinks for most adults – crash risk is two times higher than at zero alcohol concentration, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). 

By the time drivers reach most states’ current legal limit of .08, they are nearly four times more likely to crash, according to NHTSA.

Opponents of lower alcohol concentration limits argue that moving to .05 will take the United States back to prohibition. In fact, researchers with National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that lowering BAC levels does not decrease alcohol consumption. It does, however, reduce alcohol impaired driving by as much as 11 percent. The researchers estimate 1,790 lives could be saved each year if all states adopted a .05 legal alcohol concentration limit.

If we effectively educate the public around the nature of impairment, we will increase support for lower legal alcohol limits, and more drivers will drink responsibly – or not drink at all, if they plan to drive.

Utah started an imperative national conversation, and it may have sparked the most significant dialogue around drunk driving in decades. Now Michigan is ensuring that discussion continues. Our roads will be much safer for it.  

Nicholas J. Smith is interim president and CEO of the National Safety Council.