All 50 states use a blood-alcohol content (BAC) level of .08 to legally determine whether someone is too intoxicated to drive. And many states lower minor (underage) BAC. Recently, Utah passed a measure to lower its adult BAC threshold to .05. And The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine have published a report recommending – some say demanding – that all states lower the .08 threshold to .05. The authors of the report strongly urge the federal government to support the new BAC limit and call for strong federal and state enforcement.
The study was commissioned by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) in hopes of finding a solution to what is arguably the deadliest danger on the road today: drunk drivers. The report, issued on January 17, 2018, suggests some rather radical remedies to the plague of intoxication-based driving offenses and deaths. The most aggressive of these include:
- Making alcohol more expensive by raising, even doubling, alcohol taxes in retail liquor outlets. The report suggests that doubling alcohol taxes could, by itself, reduce alcohol-related traffic deaths by as much as 11 percent.
- Reducing the number of days and/or hours during the day that retail alcohol outlets are open for business.
While few can legitimately dispute the progress made in recent decades to curb drunk driving deaths, more than 10,000 people still die in alcohol-related vehicle accidents each year in the United States. The report’s authors cite NHTSA’s assertion that since 1982 drunk driving has caused one-third of all traffic deaths, on average.
Of the total number of DWI fatalities over the same period, four in ten fatalities were passengers or people in other vehicles, not the intoxicated driver. And In 2010, the total economic cost of DWI crashes in the U.S. was $121.5 billion, which encompasses medical bills, lost earnings, other costs and total property damage.
The National Academies’ panel suggests there is strong evidence that higher alcohol taxes reduce binge drinking and drunk-driving deaths. And it lamented that alcohol taxes across the nation have declined in inflation-adjusted terms, at both federal and state levels. The panel further noted that those taxes don’t cover the costs of alcohol-fueled harm. And in the tax bill passed in December, 2017, Congress lowered federal alcohol excise taxes by about 16 percent, the report authors said.
Despite their laudable intentions for the good of the general public, all of these proposals from the Academies are drawing a groundswell of opposition from the alcohol and restaurant industries.
The Distilled Spirits Council, a group representing the nation’s alcoholic beverage makers, quickly weighed in. It said in a statement shortly after the report was released that it “strongly support[s] the strict enforcement of the 0.08 BAC level. Reducing the BAC limit to .05 will do nothing to deter the behavior of repeat and high BAC drivers who represent the vast majority of drunk drivers on the nation’s roads.”
The council also opposes advertising bans and tax hikes on alcoholic products and claims that such moves “will have little or no impact on traffic safety.”