Lowering Allowable Blood Alcohol Levels, Increasing Taxes, Could Decrease DUI Deaths

Vehicle Accidents
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Drunk Driving

More than 10,000 deaths occur each year in the U.S. because of alcohol-impaired drivers. This senseless killing and harm by those too impaired to safely drive has been a problem for as long as there have been powered vehicles. A study released in January by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine makes several sensible recommendations to take a bigger dent in the harm done in the future.

The committee of researchers writing the report urges those working in transportation, alcohol sales and law enforcement to come together to create policies to try to stop these preventable deaths. Those recommended policies include:

  • Decreasing the allowable level of alcohol found in a driver (the blood alcohol level or BAC) in criminal driving-under-the-influence laws from 0.08% to 0.05%
  • A substantial increase in alcohol taxes
  • Improved policies to prevent illegal, under-age alcohol sales and sales to customers who are already intoxicated
  • Enacting laws requiring those convicted of drunk driving to have interlock devices in their vehicles, which allow them to start only after passing a blood alcohol test
  • Providing effective alcohol abuse treatment for offenders.

Since 1982, a third of all traffic fatalities were caused by alcohol-impaired drivers; and nearly 40% of these fatalities were people other than the drunk driver, according to the report.  The financial losses due to drunk driving accidents was $121.5 billion in 2010, including medical costs, earnings losses, productivity losses, legal costs and vehicle damage. 

Most current strategies to try to curb drunk driving focus on trying to prevent people who are intoxicated from driving through law enforcement and awareness campaigns. The committee suggests broadening the focus on drinking less instead of focusing on preventing those who’ve had too much from driving.

In all states, drivers 21 years of age and older can be arrested if they’re found to be driving with a BAC at or above 0.08%.  The committee states that a driver’s ability to safely operate a vehicle begins to decrease at even lower BAC levels, increasing the risk of an accident.  Studies from nations that have decreased their BAC level to 0.05% show this is an effective policy to reduce accidents, injuries and deaths. The committee asks state governments to change laws so alcohol-impaired driving can be charged if a driver is found to have a BAC of 0.05% or more.

Federal and state governments are also asked to significantly increase alcohol taxes.  Evidence shows increased alcohol taxes lower binge drinking and alcohol-related motor vehicle crash fatalities, according to the report, but alcohol taxes have declined, given inflation over time, at federal and state levels. The federal government is going backward when it comes to taxes. In December 2017, Congress decreased federal alcohol excise taxes by about 16%.

State and local governments should limit or reduce alcohol availability, according to the committee, including lowering the number of bars, restaurants and stores where alcohol is sold and reducing the hours when it can be sold.  Federal, state and local governments should adopt or strengthen current laws and increase enforcement to stop illegal alcohol sales to intoxicated adults and those younger than 21 years old. 

Existing regulatory powers over alcohol advertising should be strengthened and new standards should be enacted for alcohol marketing content.  The committee found that young people are at higher risk of drunk driving and are influenced by alcohol marketing.  The alcohol industry regulates itself when it comes to marketing. This approach is not working, because the rules are permissive, vague and regularly violated without penalties.

Sobriety checkpoints by local and state police are attempts to arrest alcohol-impaired drivers, remove them from the streets and increase the awareness of the problem of drunk driving.  The reports states there’s strong evidence that highly publicized sobriety checkpoints reduce alcohol-impaired driving fatalities, so there should be more of these law enforcement actions, with increased publicity.

In 2015 there were more than a million arrests for driving under the influence, according to the report. About 20% to 28% of first-time DWI offenders repeat the crime. Those arrested for DWI multiple times are 62% more likely to be involved in a fatal crash.  Individuals convicted of drunk driving who have ignition interlocks in their vehicles are less likely to be arrested again or involved in accidents.  All states should enact laws mandating ignition interlocks for all offenders.  The committee claims a minimum monitoring period of two years is effective for a first offense, with four years for a second offense.

Another way to keep those using alcohol from getting behind the wheel is to provide alternate transportation. Towns and cities should increase the availability, convenience and affordability of transportation alternatives for those who may drink and drive. This includes permitting smartphone-enabled ride sharing, improving public transportation (especially at night and during the weekends) and transportation alternatives in rural areas.

Technologies that could reduce the number of drunk drivers should also be encouraged. The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) program is being developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety. DADSS is an attempt to create technology which prevents drivers from operating vehicles when their BAC exceeds the limit set by state law, like a high-tech interlock device.  After it’s fully developed and available for public use, auto insurers could charge lower rates to those using them. After its cost and effectiveness is equivalent to other automobile safety features, NHTSA should require the technology in all new vehicles.

The study was sponsored by NHTSA. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions providing analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.

Given the widespread carnage and injuries caused by drunk drivers, some of whom are arrested multiple times for drunk driving offenses, changes need to be made at all levels of government, law enforcement and the businesses generating profits from selling alcohol.  Everyone traveling on America’s roads is a potential victim of a drunk driving accident, and it’s something we should all take seriously.

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