We’re all for putting an end to drunken driving. In Oregon in 2011, alcohol-impaired drivers were involved in nearly 30 percent of all traffic fatalities, a figure that mirrors the national average closely.
At the same time, however, imposing Prohibition by degrees, as a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation to lower the blood alcohol level at which one is presumed drunk would do, is not the answer. All states currently set the level of blood alcohol concentration at which one is presumed drunk at .08 percent; NTSB would drop that to .05 percent. It also made several other recommendations that make more sense.
Drunken driving statistics have been improving, actually. They’ve declined from about 50 percent of all driving fatalities during the 1980s to about 30 percent in 2011. That same year, about 57 percent of drunken drivers involved in fatalities had blood alcohol levels of .15 or greater, or about double the current limit. Moreover, drunken drivers involved in fatalities were eight times more likely to have had a previous conviction for driving drunk, according to the American Automobile Association.
Making Aunt Emma a criminal because she had a glass of wine at dinner might discourage some drunken driving, to be sure. Yet of the 6,266 fatalities in 2011 involving drunken drivers, only about 200 involved drivers with BAC levels of .05 percent; at .08 the number jumped to nearly 300 and at .15 it rose to 500.
Better to concentrate time and money on repeat and heavy drinkers, it seems to us, and that’s just what some of the NTSB’s recommendations would do.
One would require ignition lock devices on vehicles driven by those convicted of drunken driving, a change from current Oregon law, which makes them available but does not require them. More visible and better enforcement are also part of the mix.
There may come a time when dropping BAC levels makes sense, but doing so before addressing heavy drinkers and repeat offenders is not that time. Tackle the big problems first, please, and leave the relatively small ones for the future.