States should cut the threshold for drunken driving from 0.08 to 0.05, a federal safety board said this week in a suggestion that was met with misgivings among some in the legal system. But to advocates, it offered a renewed promise for reducing impaired driving deaths.
The National Transportation Safety Board said that driving impairment occurs in alcohol concentration levels at 0.05 or lower, and that a 0.05 blood-alcohol concentration significantly increases the risk of fatal crashes.
NTSB may have made the recommendation, but it's up to states to adopt it, and not everyone is on board with the recommendation. Advocates predict an uphill battle getting the measure passed in Illinois.
Criminal defense attorney Patrick Walsh, whose McHenry law firm Donahue and Walsh represents a high volume of driving under the influence cases, said the change would further clog the legal system.
"It would load up courtrooms that are already crowded as is," Walsh said.
"These cases would have to be tried. …. At 0.05 it's incredibly difficult to show that somebody is impaired versus somebody with a higher [BAC]."
The recommended threshold means about one drink per hour for a woman weighing less than 120 pounds, two for a 160-pound man. But BAC is largely dependent on a number of factors, including food consumption and medication intake. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof alcohol under most guidelines.
Rita Kreslin is the executive director of The Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists. She doesn't believe a lower limit would target casual drinkers, as critics have said.
"It's a proposal that's not meant to criminalize responsible drinkers," Kreslin said. "…. [If the medical community says] that impairment starts at 0.05, then we should support that."
AAIM's board of directors has not yet voted on the organization's official position, board member Marti Belluschi said. But other safety groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and AAA declined to endorse NTSB's call.
When Illinois law changed in 1997 to reflect an 0.08 legal limit, it acted as a significant deterrent for impaired drivers, McHenry County Undersheriff Andrew Zinke said.
"If 0.05 makes the streets safer, then we're all for it," he said.
In Illinois, the legal drinking limit first introduced in 1958 was 0.15 and then reduced to 0.10 in 1967.
Drunken driving crashes claim nearly 10,000 lives a year — down from 21,000 in 1982 — the NTSB said, adding that lowering the threshold could prevent nearly 1,000 deaths each year.
"It's not about the 0.05 blood-alcohol concentration, it's about those 1,000 lives," Belluschi said.