WASHINGTON, DC - A decade-old benchmark for determining when a driver is legally intoxicated -- the 0.08 blood-alcohol content rate -- should be lowered to 0.05, reducing the amount a motorist can imbibe before being presumed to be drunk, federal safety officials said Tuesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board voted Tuesday to recommend that all 50 states lower the blood-alcohol threshold to reduce the nation's drunk driving death toll, which has plateaued at about 10,000 deaths a year. All NTSB recommendations are advisory and do not carry the force of law.
Lowering the rate to 0.05 would save about 500 to 800 lives every year, NTSB staff members said, and is a crucial part of the board's attempt to eliminate drunken driving in the United States.
Under current law, a 180-pound male typically will hit the 0.08 threshold after drinking four drinks in an hour, according to an online blood alcohol calculator published by the University of Oklahoma.
That same person could reach the 0.05 threshold after two to three drinks in an hour, according to the calculator. (Many factors besides gender and weigh influence a person's blood alcohol content level. And many states outlaw lower levels of inebriation when behind the wheel.)
The NTSB will also consider numerous other actions Tuesday as part of its "Reaching Zero" plan to eliminate alcohol-related driving fatalities.
The board will consider recommending that states vastly expand laws allowing police to swiftly confiscate licenses from drivers who exceed the blood alcohol limits. And it is pushing for laws requiring all first-time offenders to have ignition locking devices that prevent cars from starting until breath samples are analyzed.
All NTSB recommendations are advisory and do not carry the force of law. But the independent agency is influential on matters of public safety, and its action could spur action from like-minded legislators and transportation departments across the country.
Board members -- meeting Tuesday on the 25th anniversary of the deadliest drunken driving highway tragedy in the nation's history -- said something is needed to jolt states into continued drunken driving reforms.
In the early 1980s, when grassroots safety groups brought attention to the drunken driving crisis, many states required a 0.15 blood alcohol content rate to demonstrated intoxication. But over the next 24 years, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups pushed states to adopt the 0.08 standard, the last state falling in line in 2004.
The number of alcohol-related highway fatalities, meanwhile, dropped from 20,000 in 1980 to 9,878 in 2011, the NTSB said. In recent years, about 31% of all fatal highway accidents are attributed to alcohol impairment, the board said.
But most of the decline in highway deaths occurred in the first decade, the board said.
"We're still seeing improvement but not nearly as much," said Robert Molloy, a supervisory transportation specialist for the board. "Things are still being done but not at the same intensity."
Safety board officials say they know a fight for a 0.05 standard will not be easy.
"I think 0.05 is going to come. How long it takes to get there, we don't know. But it will happen," Molloy said.
Said board staff member Jana Price: "I think eventually you'll see more and more people acknowledging that .05 is high risk. Most countries in the world are doing it. I think it's just a matter of time, but it's not something that will very likely happen overnight."
The NTSB said even very low levels of alcohol impair drivers. At 0.01, drivers in simulators demonstrate attention problems and lane deviations. At 0.02, they exhibit drowsiness, and at 0.04, vigilance problems.
The current 0.08, which universal among states, is not universal among drivers. Commercial drivers are deemed to be intoxicated if they have a 0.04, and there is zero-tolerance for drivers 20 and younger.
The safety board is expected to recommend to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it provide financial incentives to states to implement the changes.
At Tuesday's meeting, the safety board is also expected to champion so-called administrative license suspension or revocation, in which police confiscate a motorist's license at the time of arrest if the driver exceeds a blood alcohol limit or refused to take the content test. Some 40 states already use the administrative tool, which the safety board believes is effective because it is swift and immediate.
It also will encourage more widespread use of passive alcohol sensors, which police can use to "sniff" the air during a traffic stop to determine the presence of alcohol. If the sensor alerts, it is grounds for more thorough testing.
In December, the board encouraged more research into a technology that it believes could help meet that ambitious goal.
The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety would passively test drivers through either touch
or breath, prohibiting a driver from operating a car if alcohol is detected.
The American Beverage Institute has opposed mandatory use of the detection system, saying it would make responsible social drinking before driving "a thing of the past."
"If this technology is successfully implemented in all cars, it will be nearly impossible for drivers to have a glass of wine with dinner without worrying whether their cars will start," the institute's Sarah Longwell said in December.
"I think we need to remember, we're talking about tens of thousands of people dying. We need to do things to change that," Molloy said. "The idea that there's an OK drunk driver out there -- that 'Hey, they're just having a good time in a restaurant' -- needs to be something in the past."