Opinion: Pump brakes on lowering legal blood-alcohol limit
Legislation was recently introduced in Michigan that considers a 120-pound woman who has little more than a single drink prior to driving to be a major threat — subject to all the life-ruining consequences of a DUI. More specifically, HB 4420 aims to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit for driving by 40% from 0.08 to 0.05 BAC.
Michigan is not alone in this crusade. A similar bill currently under consideration in New York has previously been proposed in California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii and Delaware. Moreover, Utah became the first state to implement the policy this year.
California’s 0.05 bill — nicknamed Liam’s Law — was introduced after a 15-month-old toddler was killed by an elderly drunken driver who registered a 0.12 BAC. At that level, it’s clear the driver well-surpassed the current standard of 0.08 BAC, not to mention more than doubled the proposed new one.
In Michigan, the story is even more mind-boggling. The tragedy that spawned the 0.05 legislation involved a driver with a BAC of 0.306—nearly quadruple the current 0.08 law and approaching a level at which the brain begins to shut down. It’s a marvel the driver had any motor skills remaining at all.
Curiously, none of the incidents prompting this legislation would have been impacted by lowering the legal limit.
These anecdotal examples of senseless tragedy mirror the broader statistics around drunken driving fatalities — chiefly that the overwhelming majority of deaths involve individuals at high-BACs. According to the most recent federal government data, 92% of alcohol-related traffic deaths involve someone with a BAC of 0.10 or above. Additionally, the average BAC of a drunk driver involved in a fatal crash is 0.18.
It’s abundantly clear where the traffic safety threat exists and it isn’t with someone who enjoys a glass or two of wine at dinner. A driver is not meaningfully impaired at such a low BAC level. In fact, driving while talking on a hands free cellphone is considered to be more impairing than someone at 0.05 BAC.
The disconnect between the problem and the policy solution should be reason for pause.
Instead of applying a policy that does little to address the problem at hand, lawmakers should pursue measures that would actually save lives. In this case, that means more focus and targeting of truly drunken drivers and deterring them from getting behind the wheel.
There are a number of avenues that could lead to progress in this area. Strong enforcement of ignition interlock laws — especially focusing on high-BAC and repeat offenders — will go a long way towards keeping dangerous drivers off the road. And investing more resources into saturation and roving patrols — which actively target seriously impaired drivers — will further advance safety.
It’s puzzling why activists continue to pursue a policy that will neither increase road safety broadly nor would have prevented previous tragedies from occurring. Michigan lawmakers should keep this perspective in mind when deciding between adopting a 0.05 law or investing in alternative policy paths that will truly save lives.
Jackson Shedelbower is communications director of the American Beverage Institute.