How Drunk Is Too Drunk to Drive?

Utah is about to lower the blood alcohol threshold. Other states should do the same -- and more.
October 23, 2018
Half of the states require people convicted of drunk driving to install ignition interlock devices in their vehicles. (AP/Jim Mone)
By Jean L. Raphael  |  Contributor
Founding director of Texas Children's Hospital's Center for Child Health Policy and Advocacy
By Arthur "Tim" Garson Jr.  |  Contributor
Director of the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute

On Dec. 30, just in time for New Year's Eve, Utah drivers will become the first in the nation subject to a blood alcohol content limit of .05 percent, a significant reduction from the current .08 standard. If a majority of Americans have their way, more states will soon follow Utah's lead.

On an average day in the United States, 29 people die in car crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver. The yearly cost of alcohol-related crashes totals more than $44 billion. While Americans overwhelmingly agree that action is needed to deter drunk driving, there is debate about the best way to achieve that. Advocates have pushed not only for lower legal blood alcohol content (BAC) limits but also for ignition interlocks (car breathalyzers that prevent drivers from starting their cars if they're legally drunk) and sobriety checkpoints, among other solutions.

New national polling results from our organization, the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute, shows that 55 percent of Americans support lowering the legal BAC while driving from .08, the current standard in every state, to .05. For years, the National Transportation Safety Board has pushed for exactly that. It cites data showing that the risk of being in a fatal crash is seven times higher for drivers with BACs of .05-.079, compared to drivers with no alcohol in their system, and cites estimates that a nationwide BAC of .05 would save nearly 1,800 lives annually. Last year, Utah lawmakers decided to heed NTSB's call.

Despite the clear safety benefits of the move, Utah's reform hasn't come without controversy. Critics argue that it will damage Utah's beverage and tourism industries and say it could turn responsible drinkers into criminals by enacting BAC limits that are too low.

But our survey shows that Americans support moves like this one -- and that they want states to enact other efforts to reduce drunk driving. Roughly 84 percent, for example, support requiring ignition interlocks for drivers convicted of driving under the influence, and 77 percent support automobile insurance discounts for drivers who voluntarily install the interlocks. Surprisingly, 46 percent support lowering the legal BAC limit to .00, meaning no alcohol content at all. Advocates push for other potential solutions as well, such as promotion of ride-sharing apps and high-visibility enforcement of impaired-driving laws.

The opportunity for action is wide open. The survey findings remind us that reducing alcohol-related deaths requires a multi-pronged effort that influences the safety habits of all drinkers. Utah's move will no doubt prompt national interest when it takes effect. We should take advantage of this interest and encourage other states to follow Utah's lead. But the lower BAC limit is only part of the fix. Lawmakers, police, consumers and the hospitality industry need to work together to seize this moment and take even more steps to reduce alcohol-related crashes.