The National Transportation Safety Board, a federal agency, recommended earlier this week that states reduce the blood-alcohol content (BAC) at which drivers are considered per se intoxicated of 0.05. An average male may reach this BAC after fewer than two entire alcoholic drinks in an hour, and an average female may reach it after just one.
Currently, all states, including Nevada, have a per se intoxication BAC at 0.08 for noncommercial drivers age 21 or older. The campaign to set the BAC at .08 began nationwide decades ago by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and other organizations. Congress stepped in by offering certain grants to states that set the BAC at 0.08. In 2000, Congress passed a law that threatened to cut off transportation funds for states that did not have laws setting the BAC at 0.08 by 2004.
By 2004, all states had complied. Legislation in Congress to do the same for a 0.05 BAC has not materialized yet, and it is uncertain how it would fare.
In their recommendation, the NTSB claims that reduction in deaths related to DUI has stalled, despite the fact that in the 31 years between 1980 and 2011, DUI deaths have been cut in half, from 20,000 to 9,500. This is an apparent utopian effort to reduce DUI deaths to zero — an admirable goal, but one that is simply not feasible.
About 70 percent of DUI fatalities are linked to drivers with a BAC at 0.15 or higher. Targeting less intoxicated drivers is going after the wrong people. Penalties for a Las Vegas DUI are harsh — for a first offense, a person could face from 48 hours to six months in jail or at least 96 hours of community service, fines ranging from $340 to $1,175 in fines, and a 90-day suspension of driving privileges.
If Nevada were to take the recommendation of NTSB, people could face jail time, lose their jobs and have permanent criminal records by driving while buzzed and far less likely to cause a serious accident. In addition to the cost borne by these individuals, we all would bear the costs of incarcerated possibly many more people, who would not have constituted much a danger.
Per se intoxicated means the level of intoxication at which a person is automatically driving illegally, regardless of their actual level of impairment. However, Nevada DUI law makes it illegal to operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol to a degree that one is rendered unable to safely driver. This means that if a person is really unable to safely drive with a BAC at 0.05 or below, that person could be arrested, making any changes to the law unnecessary.
Drunk driving is unsafe, and the intent of those seeking to reduce DUI deaths is commendable. However, unrealistic solutions to these real problems are likely to hurt more than they help.