- - Monday, February 27, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

New traffic fatality data shows that U.S. motor-vehicle deaths increased by 6 percent last year.

Legislators who want to look like they’re “doing something” to address this problem are bullying a favorite target: social drinkers. In part, this means a new push to lower the legal blood alcohol limit (BAC) for drivers from .08 to .05. Hawaii, Utah, and Washington state lawmakers are considering adopting such legislation. Other states surely won’t be far behind.

This crusade is not new. In 2013, the National Traffic Safety Board made the recommendation to lower the legal limit to .05 in all states. But at the time even the nation’s most prominent advocacy organization for victims of drunk driving — Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) — refused to support such a notion. The group’s founder, Candy Lightner, called the idea “impractical” and “a waste of time.”

That group is still against it and for good reason. Lowering the legal limit to .05 will do almost nothing in the effort to reduce traffic fatalities. In fact, only 1 percent of alcohol-related traffic fatalities nationwide involve a driver that has a BAC between .05 and .08. And those “alcohol-related” fatalities are not to be confused with “alcohol-caused.”

In reality, it takes very little alcohol to achieve the proposed arrest limit of .05. For a 120-pound woman to be arrested, she could have had little more than a single drink. And a 150-pound man could be charged with drunk driving after two beers. Depending on state law, that would mean being subject to jail, loss of license, huge fines and much higher insurance premiums for years.

While this war on social drinkers rages on, drunk driving rates have plummeted. University research shows the widely accepted practice of talking on a hands-free cell phone impairs a driver as much as having a BAC of .08. Research also shows that texting and driving is many times more dangerous than driving at .05. Drowsy and drugged drivers? They get almost no attention despite being more dangerous than many moderate drinkers who drive home after an evening restaurant meal.

If legislators can’t shake their drunk driving jihad, they should at least stop targeting responsible drinkers who just want to enjoy a cocktail after work or share a bottle of wine over dinner. Instead, they should target hardcore drunk drivers who commit the overwhelming share of drunk driving fatalities.

According to the most recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, roughly 70 percent of alcohol-related traffic fatalities involve a driver with a BAC of .15 or above. And the average BAC of a drunk driver involved in a fatal crash is .19 — more than twice the current legal limit.

If these hardcore drunk drivers already disobey the law by driving at such high BAC levels when the legal limit is .08, lowering the legal limit to .05 will surely do nothing to change their behavior. But it will entrap responsible citizens with jobs and mortgages.

Advocates will point out that many European countries already bear a legal limit of .05. But what they won’t tell you is many of these countries also allow teenagers to drink and drive. Some of the drinking ages are as low as 16. In a situation where teenagers, who feel amplified effects of alcohol and are not seasoned drivers, are legally allowed to drink and get behind the wheel, more restrictive laws may make sense. But as long as the U.S. drinking age remains sky-high at 21, this is not an apt comparison.

Drunk driving is still a serious threat to traffic safety. However, lawmakers should avoid scoring political points by passing feel-good legislation that does nothing to address the larger dangers on the road. There’s a difference between looking good and doing good.

Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.

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