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News and recent developments: Utah is first state in the United States to set a .05 BAC limit for driving.

Background. In every state in the United States, it is illegal perse (i.e., no other evidence needed) for adults to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 grams per deciliter (g/dL) or greater, for drivers younger than age 21 to drive with any positive alcohol concentration (BAC > .02), and for commercial drivers (trucks, buses, taxis, etc.) to drive with a BAC of .04 or greater.

In 1986, when the US Department of Transportation (DOT) took its first formal step toward advocating that the legal BAC limit be lowered from .10 to .08, only two states had enacted such laws (Oregon and Utah in 1983). That federal government initiative involved a regulatory action specifying the enactment of a .08 law as a criterion for a supplemental alcohol traffic-safety grant under a program authorized by the US Congress (23 U.S.C. 408). Consequently, additional states began to consider .08 BAC per se levels, and three more states adopted the new level: Maine in 1988, California in 1990, and Vermont in 1991. Between 1992 and 1998, 10 additional US states adopted .08 BAC per se laws. The movement toward a national standard for .08 BAC received renewed attention in the 105th Congress. On June 15, 2000, the Senate passed H.R. 4475 (the DOT Appropriations Bill for FY 2001) that included a general provision encouraging states to adopt .08 BAC laws by withholding a portion of a state's federal highway funds, beginning in FY 2004, for states that did not adopt the .08 limit. Congress adopted the final .08 BAC bill (Section 351) in 2000, and the president signed it into law shortly thereafter. This federal legislation expired on September 30, 2013, but has been renewed by Congress each year since then.

On May 14, 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent federal agency dedicated to promoting transportation safety, issued a report recommending, among other measures, that states should lower the illegal BAC limit for driving from .08 to .05 g/dL. The NTSB provided a sound rationale in their report and concluded that lowering the BAC limit to .05 or lower has a strong evidence-based foundation. Most industrialized nations have already enacted a .05 g/dL illegal BAC limit. However, there was a lack of enthusiastic support from some organizations, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which questioned the potential benefit of a .05 g/dL BAC law. The DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) did not formally support the recommendation either. Officials at NHTSA have stated, however, that states are free to lower their illegal BAC limit to .05 or lower if they feel that is appropriate and NHTSA will evaluate the effects. The National Safety Council (NSC) recently adopted a policy statement recommending a limit of .05 g/dL BAC or lower. In 1997, the American Medical Association (AMA) recommended that the limit for driving should be .05 g/dL BAC.

To date, only Utah has adopted this criminal per se statute in the United States and it will not take effect until December 31, 2018. A recent study conducted under a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found from a metaanalysis of studies around the world that lowering the BAC limit to .05 or lower was associated with an 11% decrease in alcohol-impaired-driving fatal crashes.

The Case for a .05 BAC Limit. The World Medical Association, the American Medical Association, the British Medical Association, the European Commission, the European Transport Safety Council, the World Health Organization, the Canadian Medical Association, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine all have policies supporting a .05 BAC or lower as the illegal limit per se for drivers aged 21 and older. At least 91 countries around the world have adopted a .05 BAC or lower limit for driving; 54 countries use limits from .06 to .12 BAC. The rationale behind adopting a .05 BAC law include:

* Virtually all drivers are impaired with regard to driving performance at .05 BAC. Laboratory and test track research shows that the vast majority of drivers, even experienced drinkers who typically reach BACs of .15 or greater, are impaired at .05 BAC and higher with regard to critical driving tasks. There are significant decrements in performance in areas such as braking, steering, lane changing, judgment, and divided attention at .05 BAC. Some studies report that performance decrements in some of these tasks are as high as 50% at .05 BAC.

* The risk of being involved in a crash increases significantly at .05 BAC. The risk of being involved in a crash increases at each positive BAC level, but rises very rapidly after a driver reaches or exceeds .05 BAC compared to drivers with no alcohol in their blood systems. Recent studies indicate that the relative risk of being killed in a single-vehicle crash for drivers with BACs of .05 to .079 is at least 7 times that of drivers at .00 BAC (no alcohol) and could be as much as 21 times that of drivers at .00 BAC depending on the age of the driver. These risks are significant.

* Lowering the illegal per se limit to .05 BAC is a proven effective countermeasure that has reduced alcohol-related traffic fatalities in other countries, most notably Australia. While studies in Europe and Australia each use a different methodology to evaluate these effects, the evidence is consistent and persuasive that fatal and injury crashes involving drinking drivers decrease on the order of at least 5% and up to 18% after a country lowers their illegal BAC limit from .08 to .05 BAC.

* .05 BAC is a reasonable standard to set. A .05 BAC is not typically reached with a couple of beers after work or with a glass of wine or two with dinner. It takes at least four drinks for the average 170-lb. male to exceed .05 BAC within 2 h, on an empty stomach (three drinks for a 137-lb. female). The BAC level reached depends on a person's age, gender, weight, whether there is food in their stomach, and their metabolism rate. No matter how many drinks it takes to reach .05 BAC, people at this level are too impaired to drive safely.

* The public supports levels below .08 BAC. The NHTSA surveys show that most people would not drive after consuming two or three drinks in an hour and believe the limit should be no higher than the BAC level associated with that. That would be .05 BAC or lower for most drivers. A recent national survey revealed that 63.6% "strongly" or "somewhat" support lowering the limit to .05 BAC.

* Most other industrialized nations around the world have set BAC limits at .05 or lower. All states in Australia have a .05 BAC limit. France, Austria, Italy, Spain, and Germany lowered their limit to .05 BAC years ago, while Sweden, Norway, Japan, and Russia have set their limit at .02 BAC.

* Further progress is needed in reducing alcohol-impaired driving. It has been 34 years since the first two states adopted a .08 BAC limit and 17 years since federal legislation provided a strong incentive to adopt a .08 BAC limit. Progress in reducing impaired driving has stalled over the past 20 years. Lowering the BAC limit from .08 to .05 will serve as a general notice to all those who drink and drive that the state is getting tougher on impaired driving and will not tolerate it. Such legislation typically reduces drinking drivers in fatal crashes at all BAC levels (BACs > .01; BACs > .05; BACs > .08; BACs > .15).

Summary. It is expected that .05 BAC laws will serve as a strong general deterrent to impaired driving and affect drinking drivers at all BAC levels. This is what happened when the first .08 BAC laws were adopted. Reductions were seen in fatal crashes involving drivers who were drinking (BAC > .01), who were intoxicated (BAC > .08) and who were at very high BACs (BAC > .15).

Most drunk-driving laws passed recently have been specific deterrent laws (sanctions for DWI offenders caught and convicted). A law that sends the message that the state will not tolerate impaired driving, such as lowering the limit to .05 BAC, has substantial potential to resume progress in reducing impaired-driving injuries and fatalities in the United States.


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James C. Fell

National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago Bethesda, Maryland United States of America

Robert B. Voas (*)

Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation Opinion Research Center Calverton, Maryland United States of America
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Title Annotation:FORENSIC SCIENCE AROUND THE WORLD; blood alcohol concentration
Author:Fell, James C.; Voas, Robert B.
Publication:Forensic Science Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2017
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