WASHINGTON — States should cut their threshold for drunken driving by nearly half from .08 blood alcohol level to .05, matching a standard that has substantially reduced highway deaths in other countries, a federal safety board recommended Tuesday. That’s about one drink for a woman weighing less than 120 pounds, two for a 160-pound man.
More than 100 countries have adopted the .05 alcohol content standard or lower, according to a report by the staff of the National Transportation Safety Board. In Europe, the share of traffic deaths attributable to drunken driving was reduced by more than half within 10 years after the standard was dropped, the report said.
NTSB officials said it wasn’t their intention to prevent drivers from having a glass of wine with dinner, but they acknowledged that under a threshold as low as .05 the safest thing for people who have only one or two drinks is not to drive at all.
A drink is defined in most studies as 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine or 1 ounce of 80-proof alcohol.
Alcohol concentration levels as low as .01 have been associated with driving-related performance impairment, and levels as low as .05 have been associated with significantly increased risk of fatal crashes, the board said.
New approaches are needed to combat drunken driving, which claims the lives of about a third of the more than 30,000 people killed each year on U.S highways, a level of carnage that that has remained stubbornly consistent for the past decade and a half, the board said.
“Our goal is to get to zero deaths, because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable,” NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said. “Alcohol-impaired deaths are not accidents, they are crimes. They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will.”
An alcohol concentration threshold of .05 is likely to meet strong resistance from states, said Jonathan Adkins, an official with the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices.
“It was very difficult to get .08 in most states, so lowering it again won’t be popular,” Adkins said. “The focus in the states is on high (blood alcohol content) offenders as well as repeat offenders. We expect industry will also be very vocal about keeping the limit at .08.”
Even safety groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and AAA declined Tuesday to endorse NTSB’s call for a .05 threshold. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets national safety policy, also stopped short of endorsing the board’s recommendation.
“NHTSA is always interested in reviewing new approaches that could reduce the number of drunk drivers on the road, and will work with any state that chooses to implement a .05 BAC law to gather further information on that approach,” the safety administration said in a statement.
The board recommended NHTSA established “incentive grants” designed to encourage states to adopt the lower threshold.
A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has estimated that 7,082 deaths would have been prevented in 2010 if all drivers on the road had blood alcohol content below .08 percent.