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An Unsolicited Opinion: On .05 BAC Laws


According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 10,874 people died in 2017 in motor vehicles crashes involving drivers with a BAC, or blood alcohol concentration, of .08 g/dL or higher. Those 10,874 people amounted to almost one third of the traffic deaths in 2017.

That more than 10,000 preventable deaths occurred is a tragedy, but the number also reflects the success of a decades-long national effort to reduce alcohol-impaired driving. In 1983, Utah and Oregon became the first states to lower the legal BAC from .10 to .08. In 2000, Congress followed suit and required states to adopt the .08 standard by 2004 or lose federal highway funds. By 2005, all states had instituted the .08 limit.

But more can still be done. The risk that drivers with a BAC between .05 and .079 will be in a fatal single vehicle crash is seven times that of drivers with no alcohol in their system, and NHTSA has endorsed further lowering the legal BAC to .05. It cites research that shows that lowering the legal BAC from 0.10 to .08 resulted in a 10.4% reduction in alcohol-related crash deaths and research that estimates that lowering the legal BAC to .05 would result in an 11.1% reduction in fatal alcohol crashes.

Utah has repeated history by becoming the first state to lower the legal BAC to .05. The law took effect on December 30, 2018.

The legislation caused controversy when Republican Representative Norm Thurston proposed it. The most outspoken opposition came from the restaurant industry. The American Beverage Institute, a trade group that lobbies on alcohol-related issues for restaurants and breweries, has been particularly vocal in its objection; the Institute’s website proclaims it is “leading the fight against 0.05.”

Critics of a lower legal BAC limit often allege that it will hurt the economy and waste police resources, and that the policy is evidence of the ever encroaching “nanny state.”

Members of the restaurant industry worry that a lower legal BAC will cause people to drink less or deter them from drinking entirely when they go out, hurting their bottom line. However, NHTSA notes that while lowering the legal BAC to .08 was associated with fewer alcohol-related traffic deaths, there was no observed change in alcohol consumption. NHTSA also points out that many countries have .05 or lower BAC limits and fewer alcohol-related traffic deaths even though their alcohol consumption per capita remains similar or greater than that in the United States.

The recent proliferation of ridesharing platforms like Uber and Lyft should also reassure those in the hospitality industry. It’s never been easier to go out, drink, and get home safely. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that a lower BAC limit will deter people from drinking in their local bars and restaurants. As Thurston’s website says, the law “is not about drinking; it is about separating drinking from driving.” And that separation doesn’t require people to change their level of alcohol consumption, just their way home.

Critics of the lower BAC limit also argue that the law will waste police resources and draw police attention away from those drivers who pose the most threat to public safety, the drivers with a .15 BAC or higher. Police in Utah don’t seem concerned. Troopers and officers in Utah are already arresting based on evidence of impairment says Sgt. Nick Street of the Utah Highway Patrol in an NPR report, “that standard is not going to change.” Street believes the law has already begun to work by keeping impaired individuals who might otherwise drive off the road.

The specter of the “nanny state” has also been invoked by some in opposition to the law. But is a lower BAC limit really government overreach? Ultimately, I don’t think so. While I think it’s prudent to be wary of the expansion of government power, I think Utah is acting appropriately in its attempt to save lives and that other states should follow its lead.

The fact of the matter is at .05 BAC, you are impaired. According to the NHTSA, a 160 pound man who has three drinks in an hour will likely reach a .05 BAC. At that level, drivers have, among over things, difficulty steering, reduced ability to track moving objects and a reduced response time to emergency situations. Why are we so comfortable with letting people hurtle down highways driving 4,000 pound cars at this level of impairment? We shouldn’t be. You have every right to go out and have several drinks with dinner, but the facts say that if you choose to drive home, you’re likely a danger to yourself and others. Why should that be your right?

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