A federal proposal to lower the drunken driving threshold was met with lukewarm enthusiasm from safety groups and concerns from the beverage industry that the government is going too far.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday voted to recommend lowering the legal blood alcohol content limit for drivers from .08 percent to .05 percent, in a multipronged effort to decrease the 10,000 DUI deaths each year that comprise a third of traffic-related fatalities in the United States.

"Our goal is to get to zero deaths because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said. "Alcohol-impaired deaths are not accidents; they are crimes. They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will."

Not surprisingly the recommendation fell flat with bar owners.

"They're maybe going a little overboard," said Sonny Walters, owner of the popular Britannia Arms in downtown San Jose. "I'd like to see the data used to decide that, because to me it feels like were going in the right direction already."

But don't expect the .05 percent limit to become law anytime soon. Individual states would have to adopt the new standard, and it took about 20 years for all the states to lower the limit from .10 to the current .08. California started enforcing the .08 limit in 1990.


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"We agree with the recommendations in general, and .08 is the law of the land, and it was already difficult to get to that point," said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, a traffic-safety advocacy agency for state governments. "It was tough. There are some who will cry government intrusion on social drinkers. I don't see the states lowering to .05 in the immediate future."

It is inarguable that DUI deaths in the country are tragic and preventable. What is being argued in the immediate wake of the NTSB announcement is the potential effectiveness of lowering of what constitutes DUI.

A woman weighing less than 120 pounds can reach .05 after just one drink, according to an estimate index by the California Department of Motor Vehicles. By the same index, a man weighing up to 160 pounds passes the proposed threshold after two drinks.

The American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade group with more than 8,000 members, said lowering the limit punishes those who drink moderately and draws scarce law enforcement resources away from finding the heavy drinkers who account for the majority of DUI fatalities.

"This recommendation is ludicrous. Moving from .08 to .05 would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior," Sarah Longwell, managing director of the organization, said in a statement.

Mike, a San Jose resident who was patronizing a downtown bar Tuesday afternoon, generally echoed those sentiments and said the existing .08 threshold can be reached with only modest drinking. He asked that his full name not be used so he could speak candidly about how he was arrested twice for DUI over a span of 12 years.

"It's really easy to hit. It's a little ridiculous," he said. "Ultimately people can govern themselves. We need a little less law, more personal responsibility."

But David Nepove, president of the United States Bartenders' Guild, in an email said his organization has "always supported the 'Don't Drink and Drive' initiative and promotes Designated Drivers at our events. If the government feels that lowering the BAC legal limit to .05 percent will keep our citizens and communities safer, we fully agree with and support this decision!"

The blood-alcohol level is only a confirmation of erratic driving behavior that must be first caught by officers in the field, and doesn't necessarily rule out DUI, even if it's below the legal limit, said Sgt. Diana McDermott of the California Highway Patrol. How the driver performs on the field sobriety test can also be a factor.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the preeminent anti-DUI advocacy group, is staying on the sidelines in the .05 debate at least for now, saying it's just part of what should be a comprehensive plan to curb drunken driving, along with increasing law enforcement visibility and better integrating technology like locking ignition devices in the cars of convicted DUI offenders. The latter was another recommendation made by the NTSB on Tuesday, though it was overshadowed by the recommendation to lower the blood-alcohol limit.

"There's not going to be one single thing that will eliminate drunk driving overall," said Jody Iorns, executive director of the Bay Area's MADD affiliate. "And the ultimate and safest course of action is still to not drink and drive."

Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.