It is illegal to drive a motor vehicle in California with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 or greater. This is the law in every state and has been since 2004 when the final states with a .10 legal limit reduced their limits to .08. However, Utah is on the verge of becoming the first state to lower the legal threshold to .05. Will other states follow Utah's lead? This issue is not without strong opinions. This blog post will explore both sides of the debate.
Arguments In Favor of Stricter Drunk Driving Standards
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommends that all 50 states adopt a BAC cutoff of 0.05 compared to the 0.08 standard on the books today, which is used by law enforcement and the courts to prosecute drunk driving cases. NTSB estimates that lowering the legal limit would save between 500 and 800 lives annually by reducing the number of DUI accidents.
NTSB estimates the risk of a crash at .05 percent is about half as much as it is at .08 percent. More than 100 countries have set drunk driving levels at .05 percent, including Australia and most of the nations in Europe and South America. Some statistics seem to support NTSB's position. One study shows that when Australia dropped its BAC level from .08 to .05, traffic fatalities dropped as well (between 5 and 18 percent, depending on the province). It has been reported in Europe that EU countries have seen up to a 50 percent reduction in drunk driving fatalities after adopting the .05 guidelines.
Supporters of the .05 legal alcohol level contend that traffic fatalities will almost certainly decrease, particularly among young drivers. A study from a couple years ago by the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (NHTSA) found that 34 percent of drivers between the ages of 21 and 24 that were involved in fatal collisions had BAC levels of .08 or higher — and a lack of experience makes any level of impairment that much more dangerous. NHTSA also cites to studies that show impairments such as tracking moving objects, trouble steering, coordinating, and responding to emergency situations can occur at a BAC as low as .05 percent.
In sum, supporters believe that a lower legal limit will save lives, keeping more drivers that have been drinking off the road.
Arguments Against Stricter Drunk Driving Standards
Opponents of the measure feel that the lower legal limit will be detrimental to safe, casual drinkers, who simply have a drink or two with dinner at a restaurant, most of which do not feel any effects of alcohol that would impair their ability to drive safely. Responsible drinkers would be unable to have a drink at dinner without fear of getting a DUI when driving home. Opponents contend that lowering the legal limit to .05 does nothing to target the "hard core" drunk drivers who cause the vast majority of drunk driving fatalities. They cite to studies that show the majority of DUI accidents in the United States involve drivers with a BAC over .15.
Factors such as a person's gender, weight, and food intake, to name only few, all effect how high a person's BAC can reach. For example, a 150 pound man drinking on an empty stomach could cross the .05 limit after only two drinks. A 120 pound woman could reach .05 after having only one drink. These examples contemplate the traditional definition of drinks: one drink equals 1.5 ounces of 80 proof liquor (40% alcohol) like whiskey or vodka, 12 ounces of 4.5 ABV beer, or 5 ounces of 12 percent ABV wine. However, any craft-beer drinker knows that while beer typically ranges between 4 and 6 percent, many styles, like double or imperial IPAs, hover in the 8 to 9 percent range, and imperial stouts can clock in anywhere from 10 to 14 percent. This means that one craft-beer is likely to put you at or above the .05 legal limit. These numbers support the contention from opponents of the .05 legal limit that casual, responsible drinkers who have as little as one drink at lunch or dinner will be engaging in criminal behavior if they choose to drive a motor vehicle.
In sum, opponents contend that lowering the BAC to .05 is unnecessary. It does not address the serious drunk drivers who drive with a high BAC and are responsible for the majority of DUI accidents and it turns responsible drinkers into potential criminals.
Current State of the Law
There is no current legislation in California to lower the BAC legal limit to .05. Once the Utah bill becomes law, many states will be watching closely to see the effects, both good and bad. Whether or not California and other states follow with similar legislation remains to be seen. Berglund Law Office, P.C. will continue to track any changes in California DUI law here on our DUI Blog.