A leading government safety entity is calling on the U.S. to lower the allowable blood alcohol level for drivers by 35 percent.
The board of the National Transportation Safety Board this morning recommended that the blood alcohol content, or BAC, from .08 percent down to .05 percent. The aim is to cut the nearly 10,000 deaths every year related to alcohol impaired driving.
Most of the industrialized world already has the lower standard. "It will happen," says Robert Molloy of the NTSB. "We are behind the world."
In addition to lowering the standard, the NTSB staff asked that penalties for first and repeat offenders be increased. NTSB recommended more technology including a "sniffing flashlight" used by police officers which can detect alcohol odors. There is also a call to accelerate research into cars which can detect if the driver has been drinking and not allow the car to be started.
The staff report suggests that if the BAC standard is lowered, between 500 and 800 lives could be saved every year. Driving under the influence is responsible for nearly a third of all crash fatalities in the U.S. The NTSB suggests those deaths and the 170,000 yearly injuries add up to a cost of $66 billion every year.
The American Beverage Institute called the NTSB's recommendation "ludicrous" and the "latest attempt by traffic safety activist groups to expand the definition of 'drunk.'"
"Moving from .08 to .05 would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior," said Sarah Longwell, managing director of ABI. The institute estimated that the average woman would reach the .05 level after just one drink.
The group also disputed NTSB's claim that lowering the BAC threshold would save lives.
"Out of the over 32,000 U.S. traffic fatalities in 2011, less than 1 percent were caused by drivers between .05 and .08 percent BAC," Longwell said.
"Further restricting the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to stop hardcore drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel," she said.
The NTSB has no authority to change the standard. It can only recommend that each state make the change. Currently every state is at the .08 percent standard. It took more than two decades for states to lower from .1 percent to .08 percent.