In January the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released “Getting to zero alcohol-impaired driving fatalities: A comprehensive approach to a persistent problem.” The consensus report—produced by an interdisciplinary committee of researchers in public health, medicine, policy, and health sciences and supported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)—calls for states and the federal government to enact a series of evidence-based measures to reduce drunk-driving deaths and crashes. Among the list: higher taxes on alcohol and resetting the legal BAC for impaired driving to 0.05.
Drunk driving “the deadliest and costliest danger on U.S. roads”
While the uptick in drugged and distracted driving has received the lion’s share of headlines in recent years, alcohol-related traffic fatalities remain one of the most predominant causes of deaths on the nation’s roadways.
In 2016, on average 29 people per day died in alcohol-related crashes. In their pointedly direct introductory abstract, the report authors note, “Each alcohol-impaired driving crash represents a failure of the system—whether that is excessive alcohol service, poor road design, lack of effective policies or enforcement—and is preventable with a coordinated, systematic approach across multiple sectors.”
Several of the report’s recommendations—including DWI courts, treatment for addicted DUI offenders, and technology-based interventions like ignition interlocks—already have wide support, but others that involve policy changes and additional regulations on the alcohol industry may receive a more mixed response.
Higher alcohol costs = less binge drinking?
According to the report, “Alcohol taxes have perhaps the strongest and most consistent evidence base of any U.S. policy for reducing binge drinking, and strong direct evidence shows that higher alcohol taxes reduce alcohol-impaired driving and motor vehicle crash fatalities.” In short, when booze is more expensive, people buy less alcohol and consume fewer drinks in a sitting—meaning that they are less likely to be impaired behind the wheel.
However, state and federal taxes combined account for just $0.08 to $0.20 of a drink’s costs, and the tax reform bill passed by Congress in December 2017 reduced the federal excise tax on alcohol to its lowest level since 1950. The report recommends increasing taxes “enough to have a meaningful impact” on the cost of a drink, ensuring that those taxes increase with inflation, and designate the funds from those taxes for activities like sobriety checkpoints and treatment programs.
Lower legal “per se” BAC
Research shows that the risk of a fatal crash more than doubles by the time someone reaches the current drunk-driving limit. In fact, citing laboratory results, the report states that an “individual’s ability to operate a motor vehicle (including a motorcycle) begins to deteriorate at BAC levels well below 0.05%.”
States are responsible for setting the “per se” BAC for driving—the blood alcohol concentration at which a person is automatically considered to be driving drunk. However, federal government played a significant role in achieving the current standard of 0.08.
The report calls on both state and federal governing bodies to lower the “per se” BAC for driving—the blood alcohol concentration at which a person is automatically considered to be driving drunk—from 0.08 to 0.05. States are responsible for setting their BAC limit; however, the federal government plays a significant role in incenting a standard by tying it to eligibility for federal highway dollars.
Since 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended reducing the legal BAC for drivers from 0.08 to 0.05. While several states have considered doing so, to date only Utah has passed legislation. That state’s new BAC limit is set to take effect at the end of 2018, but the tourism and alcohol industries are urging law makers to reconsider their decision.
The report notes that other countries that have lowered their legal driving BAC have seen alcohol-related traffic deaths drop. Ultimately, the report argues “The benefits of lowering BAC are on a continuum, but they are enhanced when introduced alongside high-visibility enforcement, sobriety checkpoints, and publicity. The committee concludes that reducing the BAC to 0.05% is an effective strategy and has the greatest potential impact on those at the highest risk of alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities.”
Additional DUI policy recommendations
In total, the report makes more than two dozen recommendations, noting “There is no one-size-fits-all approach that will solve the problem of alcohol-impaired driving. For a problem this large and widespread a systematic population approach is needed.” Additional policy-oriented recommendations include:
- Limit or reduce alcohol availability, including restrictions on the number of on- and off-premises alcohol outlets, and the days and hours of alcohol sales.
- Strengthen laws and dedicate enforcement resources to stop illegal alcohol sales (i.e., sales to already-intoxicated adults and sales to underage persons).
- Use existing regulatory powers to strengthen and implement standards for permissible alcohol marketing content and placement across all media, establish consequences for violations, and promote and fund countermarketing campaigns.
- Ensure that timely standardized data on alcohol-impaired driving, crashes, serious injuries, and fatalities are collected and accessible for evaluation, research, and strategic public dissemination.