In Pennsylvania, it is not a crime to drink and drive. Criminal conduct occurs when one drinks to the point of impairment which the legislature has determined to be a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher. However, NHTSA is now recommending that this amount be reduced to .05, a level which, according to a recent Huffington post article, and NHTSA’s own literature, is “about one drink for a woman weighing less than 120 pounds, two for a 160-pound man” According to the article, “NTSB officials said it wasn’t their intention to prevent drivers from having a glass of wine with dinner, but they acknowledged that under a threshold as low as .05 the safest thing for people who have only one or two drinks is not to drive at all.” However, in August of 2000, NHTSA published the Driver Characteristics and Impairment at Various BACs which concluded that impairment begins at a blood alcohol rate of .02%. Is NHTSA acknowledging and error in the 2000 report by now making a recommendation that .05% be the new threshold, or is safety not the primary factor behind this new recommendation?
In 2011 in Pennsylvania, there were a reported fifteen fatalities where the driver had a blood alcohol level affected by this recommended change according to the NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) That is to say that the change recommended by NHTSA may have saved fifteen lives by purportedly eliminating .05, .06, and .07 BAC drivers from the roadway. By comparison, in Pennsylvania in 2011 there were 2,865 total fatalities of which, 226 occurred on Saturday and 150 fatalities involved large trucks. If NHTSA’s concern for safety and a reduction of fatalities is to be believed, a new recommendation that no driver travel on Saturday or that no large trucks be permitted on a roadway may have had the effect in 2011 of saving 376 lives, or 2400% more lives than those saved by reducing the blood alcohol level as suggested.
There must be a balance between personal freedom – like the freedom to travel by motor-vehicle on Saturday with a blood alcohol level of .05% – and public safety. NHTSA’s recommendation does not seem to balance that freedom and operates to pressure the legislature to make driving with any alcohol in one’s blood a crime. It seems that NHTSA has been attempting to reduce alcohol consumption and driving to .02% since 2000 and .05% may be just a stepping stone to that goal.