Every hour in the United States, one person dies and three more suffer debilitating injuries from crashes involving drunken drivers. All told, that adds up to nearly 10,000 deaths and 30,000 serious injuries a year.
It's a tragic reality Americans don't have to accept as a risk of navigating our streets and highways. The National Transportation Safety Board, with solid evidence behind it, believes toughening state standards for drunken driving will significantly lower those numbers. The board is recommending that states lower their blood-alcohol percentage legal limits from .08 to .05, or roughly the equivalent of two drinks for a man weighing up to 160 pounds or one drink for a woman weighing less than 120 pounds.
Winning this fight will require a years-long effort against a powerful industry. Restaurants, winemakers and beer distributors are already lining up to squelch the proposal. But California's lawmakers should take the lead in reducing the tragic carnage on our roads.
More than 100 countries have already reduced their blood-alcohol thresholds to .05 percent. The results are eye-opening. A decade after the lower standard was put into place, European nations reportedly cut the number of alcohol-related deaths in half. Australia is also enjoying a significant reduction in the number of alcohol-related deaths, which it attributes, in part, to changes in behavior by social drinkers.
Sarah Longwell, a spokeswoman for the American Beverage Institute, calls the NTSB recommendation "ludicrous." She vigorously opposes the notion of going after social drinkers while pointing out that the real problem is repeat, heavy drinkers. But if the American Beverage Institute had its way, the lifesaving .08 limit wouldn't have been put into effect in the first place. The group also has opposed common-sense efforts by states to require alcohol-ignition devices in vehicles belonging to people convicted of a first-time drunken driving offense.
The lower blood-alcohol limit isn't the only NTSB recommendation aimed at making our roads safer from drunken drivers.
The NTSB also wants to create incentives for states to adopt best practices for more widespread use of various ignition-lock systems. The board has previously reported that about three out of every four drivers ordered by the courts to use these devices fail to comply. Under the NTSB guidelines, repeat offenders would be required to use technology similar to a Breathalyzer test to operate a vehicle.
California has roughly 1,000 alcohol-related traffic fatalities every year, which is testament that guiding a two-ton vehicle through a maze of other two-ton vehicles is a serious endeavor made only more problematic under the influence of alcohol.
While recognizing the length of the fight, we would encourage all residents to push the Legislature to take a common-sense step toward making our streets and highways safer to drive.