WASHINGTON -- The National Transportation Safety Board recommended Tuesday that states lower their threshold for drunken driving with the goal of reducing alcohol-related fatal crashes, which have held steady for much of the past 15 years.
The board voted 5-0 to encourage states to change the minimum blood-alcohol concentration from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent or less. Since Utah became the first state to adopt the 0.08 standard 30 years ago, the number of Americans killed in alcohol-related crashes has fallen by nearly half, but nearly 10,000 still die every year.
NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said that while the United States prides itself on transportation safety, it lags behind its peers in cutting drunken-driving fatalities. She noted that European Union countries had slightly exceeded their goal of cutting such deaths in half.
Impaired driving remains one of the biggest killers in the United States, Hersman said. Other nations are taking steps toward saving lives.
The unanimous vote came exactly 25 years after the nations worst alcohol-related crash, near Carrollton, Ky. On May 14, 1988, a church group was returning home from a trip to the Kings Island amusement park near Cincinnati when a pickup going the wrong way on Interstate 71 crashed into the groups bus. It ruptured the fuel tank and ignited a fire that engulfed the bus. Twenty-four children and three adults were killed.
The pickup driver, Larry Mahoney, had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.24, more than twice the legal limit in Kentucky at the time. A jury convicted Mahoney of manslaughter and he served nearly 11 years in prison.
We have made progress since that deadly night in Kentucky, Hersman said. But its not nearly enough. Today, our thoughts are with those families.
NTSB has no enforcement power over the states, so the change would have to come from state legislatures and governors. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Tuesday that it would help states that decide to implement the recommendation and encouraged them to take other steps that would prevent impaired drivers from getting behind the wheel.
NHTSA continues to work with states and encourages them to take a multi-faceted approach to reducing drunk driving that includes the use of ignition interlocks, education and awareness programs, and enforcement of state drunk driving laws, the agency said in a statement.
As recently as 2000, 31 states had a limit of 0.10, but Congress passed a law that year that allowed the Department of Transportation to withhold highway funding from states that didnt fall in line. Delaware was the last to comply, in 2004.
According to NTSB numbers, the percentage of alcohol-related vehicle fatalities has changed little since the late 1990s, hovering around 30 percent.
Not everyone would support the lower limit.
Miami defense attorney Michael Catalano, specializing in DUI cases, said he thinks the recommendation will be a hard sell to state legislatures.
At 0.05, most people are not impaired, he said.
Studies show that the average Miami citizen, a 5-foot 10-inch, 160-pound 26-year-old male in good health, would reach 0.05 with three beers over an hour.
Why do they put parking lots in front of bars if we are going to lower it to basically one or two drinks? Catalano said.