Is U.S. the Easiest on Drunken Drivers?

ByABC News

Dec. 19, 2002 -- After a beer or two, you still might be legally cruising down U.S. Route 66. But in countries from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan, you'd be driving drunk.

As the Bush administration launches a new crackdown on the problem of driving while intoxicated, a new study reports the United States has one of the more lenient definitions of drunken driving in the world.

"The U.S. is, in fact, one of the countries that has the highest [blood-alcohol limits for drivers] currently," says Marcus Grant, president of the International Center on Alcohol Policy., which conducted the study of different blood-alcohol standards around the world.

The threshold for drunken driving varies in America from state to state — half have blood-alcohol limits of .10 percent, and half have stricter limits of .08 percent. People absorb alcohol differently, but a 200-pound male might have as many as six drinks over two hours and still be below the .10 limit.

Tougher in Thailand? Turkey?

That compares with .05 percent in most of Europe as well as countries such as Thailand and Turkey; .03 percent in Moldova and Turkmenistan; and .02 percent in Norway and Sweden. Eight countries do not allow any trace of alcohol in the blood, the researchers found.

The legal definition of drunken driving is only one component in a country's efforts to combat the problem, of course. Many nations might have a much stricter drunken driving standard than America, but enforcement and punishment of offenders can vary tremendously from country to country.

"Unless [drunken driving laws] are enforced and people understand them they're really not going to make any difference," Grant emphasizes. And because different countries calculate the number of drunken driving fatalities differently, it is hard to compare the effects of their various approaches.

Pushing for .08 Across the Country

Nevertheless, the different drunken driving definitions highlight the question of how best to combat the problem.

Wendy Hamilton, the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, says the blood-alcohol limits study shows the United States should be doing more.

"It clearly tells us we've got a big problem in this country," she says.

MADD advocates a .08 blood-alcohol limit nationwide, saying that research has not proven that a stricter threshold would decrease the number of drunken driving deaths in the United States.

"We don't have enough research from those European countries to know whether a .5 [percent] limit is better," Hamilton says.

Other enforcement elements are also key, Hamilton says, citing measures such as random driver checkpoints and strict penalties for repeat offenders.

The Century Council, a liquor industry-funded nonprofit organization that combats drunken driving and underage drinking, notes the average drunken driver involved in a fatal accident has a blood-alcohol level of 1.6 percent — well above the legal limit anywhere in the country.

"That's not, 'Gee, I had one drink too many,' that's 'Gee, I had seven drinks too many,' says the group's president, Ralph Blackman.

The Century Council, which supports the stricter .08 blood-alcohol limit, stresses the importance of educating the public. The group's studies have shown that some 70 percent of Americans don't know the blood-alcohol limit in their state, and 80 percent don't know how many drinks will make them too drunk to drive legally.

Progress Has Stalled in Recent Years

With recent data showing the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths is creeping up, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Wednesday it was beginning a new push to combat drunken driving.

NHTSA estimates 17,448 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes last year — far fewer than 20 years ago, when more than 26,000 were killed, but the declines have stalled over the last three years.

The government safety agency aims to lower the number of deaths by 2,000 next year.

"We are not making sufficient progress," NHTSA head Jeffrey Runge said Wednesday. "There is no excuse for this."

Over the holidays, when millions will hit the roads and drunken driving is a particular concern, the agency is spearheading an effort to establish more sobriety checkpoints around the country and increase police highway safety patrols.

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