It’s hard to imagine that politicians who lack the will to impose minor restrictions on assault weapons could muster the nerve to lower the threshold for drunken driving as dramatically as the National Transportation Safety Board recommended Tuesday. But for the sake of the thousands of Americans who are killed or maimed as a result of drunken driving crashes every year, they should.
The current legal blood-alcohol concentration for drunken driving is 0.08 percent in most states. That allows a 180-pound man on an empty stomach to consume four drinks (beers, glasses of wine or shots of liquor) in 90 minutes and still not be intoxicated. Ditto a 130-pound woman who consumes three drinks under similar circumstances. Those seem like fairly liberal tolerances — the kind that enable too many people to drive when their vision, reflexes and judgment have been compromised to the point that they shouldn’t.
The lower 0.05 percent BAC threshold recommended by the NTSB would match the level New York and some other states have for a lesser (but still serious) alcohol-related offense of driving while ability impaired. The penalties for DWAI are less severe than for DWI, but they’re still considerable — fines, a suspended license, and thousands in legal fees and higher insurance rates — so the lesser charge serves as a deterrent. Ratcheting up the stakes in states like New York would likely make it stronger.
And how restrictive is such a standard? It still allows the typical 180-pound man to consume three drinks, and the 130-pound woman to have two and still be under the limit. So concerns that it would bring about an end to social drinking, killing the restaurant/tavern business in the process, seem overblown.
But a tougher national threshold for DWI would save lives, if the experience in other countries with 0.05 is any indication. And given how progress in the fight against DWI in this country seems to have stalled at 10,000 fatalities a year, some jump start might be welcome.