National traffic board suggests lowering blood alcohol limit by nearly half

Cutting limit from .08 to .05 would save lives, NTSB says

Officer Shawn Burke administers a traffic safety check point organized by Cedar Rapids Police in Southwest Cedar Rapids
Officer Shawn Burke administers a traffic safety check point organized by Cedar Rapids Police in Southwest Cedar Rapids which started at 11:00p.m. on March 29, 2013. (Kaitlyn Bernauer/The Gazette)

Local agencies react to a transportation safety board’s vote to support a lower blood alcohol limit for drivers.

The National Transportation and Safety Board decided Tuesday to push states to reduce the legal limit from 0.08 to 0.05. The Board also recommends targeting repeat offenders and using in-vehicle alcohol detection technology among other strategies.

Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said “they have their work cut out for them.”

“I think they’re going to have a difficult time making that happen, it wasn't that terribly long ago they went from 0.10 to 0.08, and even that took some time and was somewhat cumbersome,” Sheriff Gardner said.

Gardner added he is “completely and totally in favor of making roadways safer,” even if that means lowering the legal limit.

The NTSB reported that over the past decade, about 130,000 people have died in crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver. Cedar Rapids Police Sgt. Cristy Hamblin said alcohol plays a key role in fatalities, she believes the department reported around seven fatalities last year, with over half of them being alcohol-related.

Sgt. Hamblin said there were 736 operating while intoxicated arrests in 2012, a slight increase from 733 OWI arrests in 2011. However, in 2010 the department reported 650 OWI arrests and 655 OWI arrests in 2009.

She added if the state decided to lower the legal limit from 0.08 to 0.05, law enforcement agencies would most likely see a “significantly higher number of [alcohol-related] arrests.”

Sheriff Gardner echoed Sgt. Hamblin, saying it will take some education on everyone’s part if the limit is lowered. He said there are several resources to figure out how many drinks could translate to 0.05 or even 0.08, using body weight, height and others factors.

According to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s Website, typical effects of 0.05 BAC include exaggerated behavior, impaired judgment and release of inhibition.  MADD said predictable effects of 0.05 on driving include reduced coordination and ability to track moving objects, as well as difficult steering. MADD reports usual effects of 0.08 BAC consist of impaired judgment, self-control, reasoning and memory as well as trouble with concentration, short-term memory loss and speed control while driving.

Sgt. Hamblin and Sheriff Gardner said both agencies, and others, receive grant money from the Iowa Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau, giving financial backing for departments to conduct checkpoints among other activities for traffic related education and enforcement projects. In March, the Cedar Rapids Police Department conducted a traffic safety check point in the 4400 block of Sixth Street SW. Officials said 53 vehicles were stopped and inspected, and four were tested for OWI --resulting in two arrests.

National Advance Driving Simulator associate research scientist Tim Brown, who conducts research pertaining to impaired driving, said much of the industrialized world has a BAC level of 0.05. He said other countries like Australia that implement a 0.05 BAC limit, will provide useful insight to the difference between 0.08 and 0.05, and its effects on alcohol-related crashes.

Omar Ahmad, National Advanced Driving Simulator senior team leader, said when it comes to driving, “everyone has a signature." One person driving with a BAC level of 0.05 may not exhibit any obvious characteristics of drunk driving, but someone with the same height and weight driving at same BAC level could appear as if they were driving way above the legal limit. “Impairment manifests itself in different ways,” Ahmad said. “For some people it’s more obvious, and for some less obvious. We’re not trying to visually pick people out, but pick people out with data.” He added it can be easier to pick up more subtle differences when looking at numbers.

Brown said over the years, society has set expectations and laws for driving. He added turning on the radio is something deemed acceptable, but with new technology like cellphones, texting while driving has been argued less favorable. “Social expectations change over time, and that factors into what society thinks is an acceptable risk. 0.08 is where the limit was set a number of years ago, and now there are suggestions that 0.05 could be an acceptable limit," Brown said. "Ultimately, each state will have to weigh in what their populous will tolerate.”

Brown said he plans to continue to do research, and will try to provide data that is helpful for policy makers and legislators.

“I don’t think this is something that will happen overnight,” Brown said of a possible legal limit change. “But it’s the start of a conversation.”

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