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Will Lowering Legal Limit to 0.05 Really Help?

Besides the IRS scandal, the news last week was focused on the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation to lower the drunk driving limit from 0.08 to 0.05.  Upon first hearing the new suggestion, I thought it seemed extreme.  However, upon realizing that to obtain a 0.05% BAC (blood alcohol content) level a 180 lb adult male would have to consume on average 2-3 drinks in one hour, this suggestion appears much less draconian.

That being said, the real question is how effective would lowering the legal limit to 0.05% be on reducing drunk driving related accidents.  Lets look at some data.

Drunk Driving Statistics

Every year around 10,000 people across the country are killed in drunk driving related accidents.   In Georgia, since 1994, on average over 25% of all fatality accidents involved alcohol impaired drivers.  Georgia has averaged 406 drunk driving related fatality crashes a year.  Of fatalities in 2008 (last recorded year), 20% involved a driver with a blood alcohol content of o.o8% of higher.  Only 3% of fatality crashes in Georgia resulted from a driver having a blood alcohol content lower than than o.o8%.  (Stats from the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety)

From these statistics it certainly appears the new suggestion is focused on a smaller amount of accidents – – at least in Georgia.

Impairment and Functionality

The reason for the much lower rate of fatality accidents involving drivers under the current 0.08% BAC level makes sense in light of evidence on actual functional impairment at various levels.  As a personal injury lawyer with Boling Rice LLC, I have been involved in a number of catastrophic alcohol related car accident cases in which we used a toxicology expert to explain to the jury just how impaired a defendant driver was at certain BAC levels.  In looking at testimony from a prior case, the following general impairment information is instructive in thinking about the 0.05% recommendation made last week.

BAC Level                       Amount of Impairment Expected

0.01%-0.029%              Most individuals appear normal with very subtle impairment normally only detectable with testing.

0.03%-0.059%             This is where behavioral changes occur including mild euphoria, relaxation and decreased inhibition.  At these              levels concentration is impaired.

0.06%-0.09%                At these levels disinhibition occurs along with other behavioral changes.  Most importantly, reasoning, depth perception, glare recovery and peripheral vision are impaired.

0.12%-0.15                     At these levels vomiting often occurs, loss of critical judgement, loss of depth perception, drowsiness, and memory and comprehension loss may occur.

According to research performed by CNN, the last time states actively moved to lower the drunk driving legal limit, fatality accidents went from a national average of 20,000 a year to just under 10,000 a year.  This occurred in the early 1980s when grass roots organizations pushed for reform during a time when many states still required a 0.15 level of intoxication to be legally drunk.  Given the amount of impairment difference between 0.08 and 0.15, it is understandable that such a reduction in the legal limit had a roughly 50% reduction in the rate of deaths.  What this statistic does seem to confirm is the correlation between the reduction in the legal limit and the number of drunk driving fatalities.

It would not appear that reducing the rate this time from 0.08 to 0.05 will have a similarly dramatic effect on drunk driving fatality numbers.  Even the NTSB does not think so.  Apparently the NTSB is calculating that the move to 0.05% BAC will result in saving between 600-800 lives a year.  I do not understand how they are even able to make such a calculation much less an educated guess on how many lives would be saved a year by implementing such a law, however, even one life a year saved would seem to be worth it.

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