Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Feds seeking to lower legal limit to .05

The National Transportation Safety Board has decided that the per se limit for drunk driving should be lowered to .05. Such a move would lower the current legal limit by more than 33% - a staggering number.

The rationale is that there are too many folks dying on our roadways every year. The NTSB keeps saying there are more than 30,000 fatalities that are alcohol-related annually. The number is misleading because all it takes is for one person involved in the accident - regardless of whether that person is driving or at fault for the accident - to have alcohol in their system to qualify the accident as alcohol-related.

A study from the Insurance Institute of America projects highway deaths could be reduced by a little over 7,000 a year if the legal limit were reduced to .05. Now let's crunch some numbers. According to the IIA, traffic deaths would be reduced by less than 25% by reducing the legal limit by more than 33%. That, my friends, doesn't compute. What is shows is the diminishing utility of making DWI laws more severe. Their numbers make a poor case for lowering the limit in that you will be punishing far more people for a very modest reduction in lives lost.

If we are going to accept the premise that lowering the permissible alcohol concentration will reduce the number of deaths on the roads, then why not go all the way and institute a zero-tolerance policy? If a .08 concentration is bad then why stop at .05? If we are going to make the assumption that someone is "under the influence" at .05, won't they still be "under the influence" at .02?

Interestingly enough, both MADD and NHTSA have expressed their opposition to the proposed change. It's probably fair to infer that MADD is betting the public would turn against it if the laws were tightened further. Their focus now seems to be getting repeat offenders off the roads.

Are we looking at another push by the federal government to thumb its nose at the 10th Amendment and force the states to lower their per se limits or find their highway funds cut? Or will the states find themselves pressured to create a new offense of driving while impaired (or DWI Lite)?

There are already far too many traps for motorists. We need to be looking at ways to reduce the number of people who filter through the criminal (in)justice system. We don't need more folks under supervision or behind bars. We don't need more folks with convictions on their records.

What will become of the roadside DWI calisthenics? Will NHTSA authorize another pseudo-scientific attempt to "validate" these exercises for alcohol concentrations of below .08?

The problem with a per se limit is that it's a fiction. There are folks out there who lose the normal use of their mental or physical faculties after just one drink. There are others who can drink much more before the debilitating effects of alcohol take hold.

Now make no mistake about this, I want to keep drunk drivers off the roads. But I don't want to see more people cuffed and stuffed into the backs of police cars when they have done nothing wrong. I sure as hell don't want to see more forced blood draws -- though with the current backlogs we are experiencing, any more blood draws would come damn close to flooding the system.

The NTSB idea is a bad one - but that never stopped a legislator from picking up the ball and running with it. Now is the time to nip it in the bud.

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