The United States is among a handful of countries that sets the illegal blood alcohol concentration as high as 0.08 percent. Perhaps that is one reason we trail behind many other developed countries in our traffic safety record. In virtually every country where the illegal level has been lowered, lives have been saved.
When several European countries lowered their levels to 0.05 percent, researchers tallied the reductions in traffic deaths to be somewhere between 8 percent and 12 percent among drivers ages 18 to 49. And in Australia, fatal crashes decreased by 18 percent in Queensland and 8 percent in New South Wales after those states lowered their limits to 0.05 percent. In Sweden, when the illegal level went from an already-low 0.05 percent to 0.02 percent in 1990, the proportion of alcohol-related fatalities declined sharply, from 31 percent in 1989 to 18 percent in 1997. In our own country, lowering the limit from 0.10 to 0.08 was associated with reductions in impaired driving crashes and fatalities from between 5 percent and 16 percent.
Most countries that have lowered their illegal blood alcohol concentration levels have seen dramatic declines in traffic deaths.
Of course, these laws work best when they are coupled with vigorous enforcement efforts. Many of the countries that have seen the most significant reductions in fatal crashes use random breath testing as a routine enforcement strategy. While that is not permitted in the United States, sobriety checkpoints can be just as effective.
Critics may say that this kind of change canâ€™t work, that most impaired driving crashes occur at much higher blood concentration levels. But the research clearly shows that it does work. Arguments that this sort of law criminalizes normal behavior and does not affect the so-called hard-core drinking driver are simply not true.
The proof is in the lives saved.
Drinking and driving is a complex and stubborn problem, but we have many tools to combat it. As we have seen over and over and in country after country, lowering the illegal blood alcohol level is one tool that can make us all safer.
Kathryn Stewart is a founding partner of Safety and Policy Analysis International and the director of dissemination at the Prevention Research Center in Berkeley, Calif. She is also the president-elect of the International Council on Alcohol, Other Drugs and Transportation.
Her original article appeared in the New York Times.