.05 vs. .08?

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smAs everyone is probably aware, the US Government is recommending that the legal limit on alcohol be reduced to .05 from .08.  Supposedly, this will save some number of lives (and I have no doubt it would).

Tom Wark took a fairly close look at this issue (see http://fermentationwineblog.com/2013/05/the-impact-of-lower-blood-alcohol-content-levels-on-wine-lovers/), and pointed out some pretty interesting, and pertinent, facts.

First off, under the present standard of .08, a 200 pound man (such as me) can drink 3 glasses of wine, 3 ½ in fact, and still stay under the legal limit.  The .05 limit would mean I could go up to only 2 ½ glasses, which is roughly half a bottle.

Well, based on this admittedly narrow subset of one (i.e., me), I really couldn’t argue against reducing the limit.  At half a bottle of wine, I feel reasonably able to get behind a wheel more or less competently.  But that’s about it.  My general rule is two glasses if I’m going to drive.

But, like pretty much everything, it’s not that simple.  As I’ve aged, I feel less and less able to tolerate alcohol.  I do think that 20 years ago, I could drive as well with more alcohol in me (though maybe not a whole lot more).   And I am quite sure that there are people who can drink more than I can and drive just fine, and others that shouldn’t be driving with less.

And if you go to the National Traffic Safety Administration publication on alcohol-related deaths, which you can find at http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811385.pdf, the whole subject becomes murkier still.  A few of the more pertinent facts:  the number of fatalities with “alcohol impaired” drivers did not mean that alcohol impairment was a cause of the accident (in other words, the accident may not have been caused by the impaired driver at all).  I would guess it was in many cases, but the Safety Administration doesn’t even venture a guess as to what percentage of cases were not just “alcohol impaired” cases, but were cases where the impairment was the cause of the accident.  It’s also pretty clear that in most accidents involving the alcohol impaired, it is the impaired driver who died (67% of all deaths), followed by other occupants of that driver’s vehicle (16%).   And it certainly seems to me that where someone makes the choice to drive with alcohol in them, and suffers the consequences, that’s less tragic (though still tragic) than when a totally innocent victim of the drunk driver dies.

Apparently the deaths to the alcohol impaired drivers were highly correlated with not wearing seat belts.  So I’m not sure whether the deaths were due to the alcohol impairment, or the failure to use seat belts.  I’m sure it was some combination of the two, but it’s not altogether clear to me how to sort that out.  It looks like roughly half of the deaths could have been avoided by seatbelt use, but, again, it’s not that clear.

Another point that I don’t know the answer to (and probably no one else does either) is how effective lowering the limit would be in actually obtaining compliance.  In other words, it is one thing to make driving between .05 and .08 illegal—but will that translate into any meaningful change in behavior?  I have my doubts.

At any rate, my point here is not to cudgel you with grisly statistics, but to (finally) get to my main point.  My first reaction (and probably that of most people) is that if we can save one life, then it’s worth it.  But like many first reactions, this one doesn’t make that much sense.  Every activity we engage in has some level of danger.  Just looking at driving, I know I drive worse when I’m tired, hungry, am rushing to the bathroom, etc. etc.  I am quite sure that each of those “risk factors” can be translated into some grisly number of traffic deaths each year.   Somehow it seems incredibly crass and unfeeling to try to balance the number of bodies in a morgue against the pleasure others receive from whatever activity we are considering.

So getting back to the question, should the DUI limit be reduced to .05?  I guess my answer is, I don’t know.  Unfortunately, it’s a little less or a little more sort of question.  And those who enjoy alcohol (I plead guilty to that) would undoubtedly tolerate more risk than those who don’t.

I certainly don’t have a problem with the concept of a legal limit.  It’s just that when you try to establish one, balancing so many deaths against the difficult to quantify enjoyment, there’s no clear answer.  I think .05 is a good limit for me, but I certainly can’t say that it should be the limit for everyone.  But there are a lot of people that it should be the limit for.  But you can say the same thing whether you’re considering a limit of .08, .05, .03, or .01.  I’m sure that reducing the legal limit from .01 to zero would save some lives as well.

It’s a really tough call.

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One Response to “.05 vs. .08?”

  1. Patrick says:

    I hope the Congress does not use federal highway funds as an extortion measure to force states to adopt this lower limit, as they did years ago.

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