New Jersey DWI News: NTSB Recommend Lowering Legal Blood-Alcohol Content from 0.08 to 0.05 Percent

Question: How do you increase the number of New Jersey drunken driving arrests almost overnight?
Answer: Just lower the legal limit for blood-alcohol concentration.

The simple Q&A above may seem like a heavy handed attempt at levity, but it actually does have its roots in reality. And, while the scenario of having an even tighter legal limit for drunk driving might seem a bit far-fetched at this very moment, it may be closer than anyone might expect if state legislatures like ours here in the Garden State take the latest recommendation from the federal government to heart.

According to news reports, safety analysts at the National Transportation Safety Board have just recommended a lowering of the legal blood-alcohol content (BAC) level from the current 0.08 percent to a suggested 0.05 percent. The recommended level of 0.05 percent represents a drastic reduction of more than one-third from the current legal limit. As New Jersey DWI defense attorneys, we can only surmise that a lower legal limit would result in a potential increase in drunk driving arrests, at least initially.

Human nature being what it is, it may be that many of the individuals who currently drink and drive likely would continue doing so regardless. But one must ask whether a lower legal limit would shock our society to the point of most everyone being more vigilant about how much they drink before operating a motor vehicle. For reference, approximately 10,000 people die each year in drunk-driving accidents nationwide, while about four million drivers reportedly admit to getting behind the wheel while intoxicated by beer, wine or hard liquor.

The reason for the recommended change, says the NTSB, is that a person’s visual acuity begins to be affected at round 0.05 percent alcohol in the bloodstream. While the recommendation was understandably decried by restaurant and beverage trade groups as ludicrous and restrictive for moderate drinkers, it would appear that the 0.05 BAC limit is not without support, mainly from other countries all around the globe.

According to news articles, while the U.S. and Canada both set their current legal limit at 0.08 percent, most European countries, as well as many South America nations and Australia use 0.05 BAC as their legal limit for drunk driving. Based on statistics quoted by NBC News, after Australia instituted the lower BAC the country’s provinces soon reported a falloff in roadway fatalities of between five and 18 percent; even on the low side, that would appear to be a notable drop in traffic deaths.

But the question in the U.S. is whether the change would result in similar savings in lives, not to mention property damage and the cost to society in terms of medical expenditures, emergency services costs and lost productivity. Based on reports, the NTSB estimates that upward of 1,000 lives could be saved annually if every state in the Union switched over to the lower BAC limit. For those who may be curious, that’s about a 20 percent drop in the current annual death rate for drunken driving-related highway fatalities.

As many may recall, it was the NTSB that called for a complete halt to any kind of cellphone use in motor vehicles late in 2011. At that time, the agency urged the nation’s state legislatures to pass legislation to ban all cellphone use in cars and trucks. To put things in perspective, there were somewhere over 3,000 deaths in 2010 directly attributed to distracted driving, of which texting and cellphone use is believed to be major contributor. Fast forward to 2013 and, as many Jersey drivers already know, the Garden State now has an all-encompassing handheld cellphone and texting-while-driving ban in place.

If the NTSB’s call for a total ban on cellphones in 2011 provided at least some impetus for legislation severely limiting the use of cellphones in motor vehicles, could the agency’s latest recommendation for a tougher BAC limit be just as effective in promoting changes to our existing drunk driving statutes? Only time will tell, but one thing is likely: trial lawyers such as my staff of experienced DWI-DUI defense attorneys may find themselves in a deluge of potential clients requesting help with their drunk driving cases.

Safety Board Recommends Defining Legally Drunk With Lower Blood Alcohol Level, Time.com, May 15, 2013
NTSB recommends lowering blood alcohol level that constitutes drunken driving, NBCNews.com, May 14, 2013