Prohibitionists are at it again

Last month, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended all 50 states in the U.S. adopt stricter drunk driving limits. The NTSB wants the legal limit for blood-alcohol levels while driving lowered from 0.08 to 0.05 percent.

Evaluating the effects of alcohol in the blood has been an important part of my forensic medicine practice for decades. So I know a thing or two about what happens when someone drives drunk.

We know for a fact that alcohol does affect your behavior, perception, judgment, and reflexes. And it does affect your ability to operate motor vehicles and heavy machinery. This is so well documented that science has been able to show the specific effects associated with each increasing level of blood alcohol to the nearest 0.01 percent.

But this new proposal is not about forensic science. Or about public safety. It is about government control.

On average, if you have just two drinks over an hour or two, you will register a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent. At this level, you begin to relax. And you begin to experience very subtle changes in behavior, perceptions, and ability.

In fact, the changes at this level are so subtle that a typical person does not appear “drunk” at all. And police officers must elicit symptoms of drunkenness through specific tests like the “field sobriety test.”

But most people can reach the proposed level of 0.05 percent after having just one drink over an hour or two! And at this level, even “field sobriety tests” likely won’t turn up symptoms of drunkenness.

So if the new limit goes into effect, expect more and more breathalyzer testing. Without actually taking and testing a blood sample, it’s the only way to estimate whether a driver passed the 0.05 percent legal limit. (And watch out if you have diabetes and must take a breathalyzer test. Diabetics can register false positives on these tests, even if their blood alcohol is zero.)

In my professional experience as a Medical Examiner, drivers really become drunk and dangerous after consuming eight drinks or more over a few hours. This significantly impairs judgment and affects reflexes. And this kind of drinker causes the vast majority of alcohol-related automobile accidents and fatalities in this country.

Fortunately, the proven health benefits of alcohol come at relatively low levels that do not cause incapacitation.

And having one or two drinks to relax and be sociable does not make you a threat behind the wheel. You simply can’t confuse someone who is social drinker, having a drink or two to relax, with a problem drinker. It is not a fine line. In fact, how many law-abiding, social drinkers could even consume eight or more drinks in one sitting–driving or not?

But according to the NTSB, we are all in the same boat. And none of us should drive our cars. They believe it is a fine line.

For many years, most states in the U.S. sensibly set a limit of 0.10 percent (or even 0.12 percent) alcohol in the blood as the permissible limit for operating a vehicle on public roads. In recent years, states lowered that limit to 0.08 percent alcohol in the blood. And now the NTSB wants to push it even lower, to the point where field sobriety tests won’t even work!

The well-respected organizations Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the old standby American Automobile Association (AAA) do not support such a drastic move. They know it will not solve the problem of drunk driving.

MADD and AAA know that the real problem stems from heavy problem drinkers who are repeat offenders. These repeat offenders pose the real dangers on the road. And they have been caught driving drunk far too many times. Unfortunately, all they get from the courts is a slap on the wrist. So they get right back in their cars and do it all over again.

But lowering the legal limit to 0.05 percent will do nothing to stop these hardcore, repeat offenders.

Over and over again, private organizations like MADD and AAA see problems like this very clearly. But the NTSB sees the world through a clouded view of government bureaucracy. And it seems to fly in perpetually cloudy weather.

In the end, this move is just another way for the government to harass average citizens. It means more intrusions. More fines. And more control.

So if you want to play it safe this summer, you better not have even one glass of wine when you go out to dinner. Or the next thing you know, the government will start to crack down on the restaurant owners. And limit how many glasses of wine they can serve you with dinner. Or they will be intimidated into voluntarily limiting consumption. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit in our brave new world.