NTSB pushes states to lower per se BAC limit to 0.05 or less

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WASHINGTON – On May 14, 1988, Larry Wayne Mahoney, a drunk driver entered the wrong way on Kentucky I-71 with his Toyota pickup truck and slammed head on into a school bus, claiming the lives of 24 children, the bus driver and two adult chaperones, who were trapped inside and died in the fire.

The accident occurred as the bus, carrying 67 people, was heading home from a church trip to an amusement park.

Mahoney, known for causing the most deadly drunk-driving accident in U.S. history, was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 16 years in prison, for which he would be eligible for parole in eight years.

Mahoney ended up serving almost 11 years.

This is the accident that spurred tougher drunken driving laws and improvements to school bus safety.

It is on the 25th anniversary of this accident the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a meeting to issue what it called “bold recommendations to help the United States reach zero and eliminate alcohol-impaired driving.”

The NTSB’s recommendations included states reducing their per se BAC (blood alcohol concentration) from 0.08 to 0.05 or lower, develop and deploy in-vehicle detection technology, require ignition interlock devices for all offenders, target and address repeat offenders, and other measures.

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) founder Candy Lightner, who has since left the organization she founded, drivers with BAC levels higher than 0.10 cause over 80 percent of drunk-driving deaths.

She said the man who killed her daughter had been arrested several more times since and in each case his BAC was 0.20 or above.

Lightner said, “A small segment of our drinking/driving population causes the majority of the fatalities,” and asked, “So why aren’t we going after them? If you want to save lives, raise your driving age. Lower the speed limit.”

Lightner believed both of those measures would do more than lowering the BAC level for DUIs.
“Police ought to concentrate their resources on arresting drunk drivers – not those drivers who happened to have been drinking,” said Lightner, who eventually left the organization she founded, stating, “It has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I ever wanted or envisioned. I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”

She has always emphasized the importance of differentiating between drinking alcohol and drunk driving.

The NTSB held a forum one year ago called, “Reaching Zero – Actions to Eliminate Substance-Impaired Driving.”

jan withersPanelists included MADD President Jan Withers and Harold Dennis, a documentary film producer who survived that deadly crash in 1988.

Forum exhibitors demonstrated alcohol detection tools, field sobriety testing and breath alcohol testing technology.

While the NTSB can only make recommendations, it is up to the individual states as to whether or not they wish to accept the board’s recommendations.

According to the NTSB, alcohol-impaired driving accounts for one-third of all U.S. highway fatalities.

In December 2012, the NTSB adopted a special investigation report on wrong-way driving.

The report concluded alcohol-impaired driving was the leading cause of wrong-way crashes and included recommendations related to ignition interlocks and Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) technology.

As a lure to get states to adopt lower BAC levels for DUI, it recommended the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) seek authority to award incentive grants for establishing per se BAC limits of 0.05 or lower, by establishing best practices for alcohol ignition interlock programs and creating incentives to encourage states to adopt the best practices.

It also recommended NHTSA develop and disseminate best practices to states for DUI courts.
It states, “By taking these recommended comprehensive actions that have demonstrated their effectiveness, the United States can accelerate progress toward reaching zero alcohol-impaired driving crashes, injuries, and fatalities.”
bac limits worldwide
According to the AAA Foundation 2013 index, more than 91 percent of respondents perceived drinking and driving as a somewhat or very serious threat to their personal safety, while 97 percent said it was unacceptable to drive when they think they may have had too much to drink.

The AAA Foundation report indicated 81 percent of respondents (53 percent strongly) supported a law requiring all drivers convicted of DUI to have an ignition interlock device installed to prevent their car from starting if they have been drinking, even if it’s their first DUI offense.

Seventy-one percent supported all new cars to have built-in technology that would prevent the vehicle from starting if the driver’s BAC level is over the legal limit. Almost 44 percent strongly supported the requirement.

In focusing on countermeasures to address the nexus of drinking and driving, the NTSB noted there may be alternative approaches to the problem by addressing drinking-related risk and driving-related risk separately, and went as far as suggesting raising the cost of alcohol “through taxes or other pricing strategies”, which it claimed “has a robust and marked effect on reducing alcohol consumption, alcohol-related mortality, and traffic deaths.”

The NTSB’s findings include:
• The public generally believes that driving after drinking alcohol poses a significant threat to safety; however, many people continue to drive after drinking.
• BAC levels as low as 0.01 have been associated with driving-related performance impairment, and BAC levels as low as 0.05 have been associated with significantly increased risk of fatal crashes.
• BAC levels higher than 0.05 are viewed by respected traffic safety and public health organizations around the world as posing unacceptable risk for driving, and more than 100 countries have already established per se BAC limits at or below 0.05.
• Changing legal per se BAC limits from 0.08 to 0.05 or lower would lead to meaningful reductions in crashes, injuries, and fatalities caused by alcohol-impaired driving.
• A data-driven approach that incorporates specific, ambitious, and measureable goals, as well as continuous monitoring of the effectiveness of counter-measures, is a practical model for moving toward zero deaths from impaired driving.

While it states BAC levels as low as 0.05 have been associated with significantly increased risk of fatal crashes, it does not show those BAC levels were in fact associated with fatal crashes.

In her opening remarks to Tuesday’s meeting during which the board adopted the Reaching Zero report, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman noted much credit goes to MADD and Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID), which she said put a face on the problem.

She went on to say, “Progress attacking the problem has taken leadership from law enforcement and government at all levels, from a host of advocacy groups, as well as from industry and motivated citizens …

“These efforts have led to a change in social norms and cultural acceptance. When Cari Lightner (Lightner’s daughter) was killed, drunk drivers frequently got away with murder. And they still do today. However, as a society, we are more aware of the risks of drinking and driving. Today the term ‘designated driver’ is in our vernacular.”

As Lightner pointed out there is a difference between drinking and driving and drunk driving.
However, the NTSB doesn’t appear to differentiate between the two.

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