Screaming ‘no’ to reform ignores facts, research on alcohol and driving

Alcohol_bottles_photographed_while_drunkEditor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune published a version of this op-ed here. We are reposting this so that interested readers can view the citations.

Alcohol is a merciless killer. Every 53 minutes, alcohol-impaired driving kills someone on the roads in America, according to federal government data. Almost 10,000 lives lost unnecessarily each year. In 2011, 181 of these deaths were children under 14.

Controlling the production and use of alcoholic beverages saves innocent lives from such a tragic and premature end. These laws prevent traffic deaths by keeping impaired drivers off the road. They help safeguard innocent people from domestic violence and sexually transmitted diseases caused by alcohol-impaired decision making. And they protect the vulnerable and susceptible, such as children and recovering alcoholics, from the chains of alcohol abuse and addiction.

Yet despite all the benefits to society from alcohol control laws – grounded in common sense, sound research, and clear-minded observation – some people still fight efforts to improve Utah’s alcohol control laws.

Those who profit from looser liquor laws have come out screaming “NO!” in response to efforts to provide policymakers with research and facts regarding the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation that states should lower the limit for blood alcohol content (BAC) – for all drivers – from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.

Alas, their objections to this proposed improvement are refuted by decades of sound research. (Read on for citations.)

One of the liquor interests’ objections is that moving from 0.08 to 0.05 BAC restricts “the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving.” But 18 fatal car crashes between 2009 and 2011 in Utah involved drivers with BAC between 0.05 and 0.079, according to federal government data. I am disturbed that those who profit from drinking would support drinking and driving in any form.

One reason for these unnecessary deaths is that “virtually all drivers are impaired” at 0.05 BAC, according to a comprehensive review of the relevant peer-reviewed research.[1]  Symptoms of impairment at 0.05 BAC include lack of coordination, difficulty in visually tracking moving objects, and slower response time in emergency situations. Research shows that to drive impaired at 0.05 BAC is to put the lives of innocent people in danger, as the likelihood of being involved in a fatal crash is four to six times higher at 0.05 BAC, depending on the age of the driver.[2]

Someone who chooses to drive while impaired by alcohol at 0.05 BAC is not acting as a “responsible adult.”

Another objection from the liquor interests against improving Utah’s BAC standard is that it “does nothing to stop hardcore drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel.” But according to sound research, it does.

A comprehensive review of the relevant peer-reviewed research found that changing the BAC standard from 0.10 to 0.08 in the 1980s and 1990s “significantly reduce[d] drinking drivers in fatal crashes at all BAC levels.”[3] More specifically, it “was associated with an 18% decrease in the proportion of fatal crashes with a fatally injured driver whose BAC was 0.15 or greater.”[4]

The BAC standard is a general deterrent to drunken driving. Lower it, and all drivers – including “hardcore drunk drivers” – get the message that they should not drink as much (and ideally not at all) if they’re going to drive. In other words, the BAC standard works through self-government, not Big Government.

As Utah policymakers further scrutinize Utah’s current BAC standard and proposals to improve it, those who stand to profit from looser alcohol control laws will surely seek to downplay  the costs to Utah families caused by drinking and driving, and they will throw their money around to influence politicians.

In the quest to defend their profits, they may – as tobacco companies did – turn to “scientists for hire” who question obvious facts and debate the sound conclusions from decades of credible research. They may even lower themselves to simply smearing credible sources that disagree with their position and seeking to marginalize their opponents.

But “facts are stubborn things,” as John Adams famously said. And liquor profits notwithstanding, the facts are clear when it comes to this imperative: Protect innocent lives by improving Utah’s BAC standard.

[1] Ferrara SD, Zancaner S, Georgetti R. Low blood alcohol levels and driving impairment. A review of experimental studies and international legislation. Int J Legal Med 1994;106(4):169-177.  Moskowitz H, Fiorentino D. A review of the literature on the effects of low doses of alcohol on driving-related skills. (DOT HS 809 028). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; 2000.  Moskowitz H, Burns M, Fiorentino D, Smiley A, Zador P. Driver characteristics and impairment at various BACs. (DOT HS 809 075). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; 2000. Howat P, Sleet D, Smith I. Alcohol and driving: Is the 0.05% blood alcohol concentration limit justified? Drug Alcohol Rev 1991;10:151-166

[2] Voas RB, Torres P, Romano E, Lacey JH. “Alcohol-related risk of driver fatalities: An update using 2007 data.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 2012;73(3):341-350

[3] Brooks C, Zaal D. Effects of a 0.05 Alcohol Limit in the Australian Capital Territory. Canberra, Australia: Federal Office of Road Safety MR 10; 1992. Tippetts AS, Voas RB, Fell JC, Nichols JL. A meta-analysis of .08 BAC laws in 19 jurisdictions in the United States. Accid Anal Prev 2005;37(1):149-161 Wagenaar A, Maldonado-Molina M, Ma L, Tobler A, Komro K. Effects of legal BAC limits on fatal crash involvement: Analyses of 28 states from 1976 through 2002. J Saf Res 2007;38:493-499 Hingson R, Heeren T, Winter M. Lowering state legal blood alcohol limits to 0.08 percent:  The effect on fatal motor vehicle crashes. Am J Public Health 1996;86(9):1297-1299.

[4] Hingson R, Heeren T, Winter M. Lowering state legal blood alcohol limits to 0.08 percent:  The effect on fatal motor vehicle crashes. Am J Public Health 1996;86(9):1297-1299.