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Drunk Driving: Should Each State Be Required to Enact a 0.08 Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) Law?

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Abstract:

To date, 15 states have enacted a law which makes it illegal per se (by definition) to operate a motor vehicle at or above a 0.08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and 33 states have enacted a 0.10 BAC limit. During the debate on reauthorization of the federal surface transportation programs, an amendment that would require each state either to enact a 0.08 BAC law or face the loss of a portion of its Federal Highway Trust Fund monies passed the Senate and will likely be considered in the House. This proposal raises questions about the effectiveness and impacts of a 0.08 BAC law, the rights of states versus the federal government, and alternative ways to encourage the states to adopt stronger impaired driving countermeasures.

At the 0.08 BAC level of alcohol, braking, steering, lane changing, and judgement are degraded and the driving performance of virtually all drivers is substantially impaired. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety asserts that the relative risk of being killed in a single vehicle crash with a driver operating at a BAC between 0.05 and 0.09 percent is at least 9 times higher than that of a driver who had not consumed any alcohol. Crash risk increases at higher BAC levels. Based on a review of the literature and interviews with various experts, it is reasonable to conclude that effective implementation of a 0.08 BAC law as compared to a 0.10 BAC law further strengthens efforts to combat impaired driving due to alcohol. There is limited research to support the conclusion that a 0.08 BAC law compared to a 0.10 BAC law reduces some measures of driver involvement in fatal crashes involving alcohol, but those results can be questioned. Until additional evidence is published, forecasts of the number of additional fatal crashes that would be prevented if each state enacted a 0.08 BAC law remain uncertain. The incremental costs of implementing a 0.08 BAC law instead of a 0.10 BAC law appear to be minimal.

Numerous health, safety, law enforcement and insurance groups favor enactment of a 0.08 BAC law in each state; but, there are substantial disagreements as to how this goal is to be achieved. Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety favor the imposition of a penalty against any state failing to enact a 0.08 BAC law. The U.S. DOT now supports the imposition of a penalty against those states that fail to enact a 0.08 BAC law.

Many state officials and state organizations assert that each state should determine its own traffic safety laws without federal pressure or dictates. Since 1990 roughly two states each year have enacted a 0.08 BAC law, without the threat of a federally-imposed sanction. In addition, those against the proposed penalty could assert that this sanction would be contrary to a current shift of power away from the federal government to the states. Opponents of a sanction also can argue that the weight of evidence documenting the effectiveness of a 0.08 BAC law needs to be strengthened before the federal government forces enactment of this measure on all states.