In Tennessee and most states, you are considered “per se” under the influence for driving if your blood-alcohol content is measured at 0.08%. However, the National Transportation Safety Board has issued a recommendation encouraging all states to lower their per se standards to 0.05%. In 2018, the state of Utah became the first to do so.
Now, New York state is considering doing the same thing. Two members of the state assembly have introduced a bill to lower the per se standard to 0.05% and also to lower the threshold for another New York law, aggravated driving while intoxicated, from .12%-.18%.
“This bill is about bringing loved ones home safely,” one of the assemblymen told reporters. “Reducing the BAC limit from .08 to .05 in New York will save lives. It’s common sense legislation.”
According to a memo accompanying the bill, some 10,000 people are killed each year in crashes involving impaired drivers. Another 173,000 or more are injured.
Would reducing the BAC standard bring down drunk driving accidents?
That is unclear. What seems clearer is that lowering the threshold would expose many more people to arrest for DUI. After all, it only takes about three to four drinks for the average person to reach the 0.08% threshold. If we lowered the threshold to 0.05%, people who had previously been considered sober enough to drive would then be considered dangerously drunk.
What we need is some agreement, and ideally scientific consensus, on when a person is truly impaired. That is difficult to come by, especially because different people metabolize alcohol at somewhat different rates.
Men become less intoxicated per drink than women, and larger people can generally drink more before becoming intoxicated. Conversely, smaller people and those with certain medical conditions can become more intoxicated than average after a few drinks. Therefore, one person might be impaired after three drinks while another might not be.
Are the police hampered by the 0.08% standard? Are they failing to arrest obviously intoxicated drivers because they test at or below 0.08%? They have the authority to arrest anyone who, in their professional opinion, is too impaired to drive.
The American Beverage Institute, a trade group representing the hospitality industry, argues that 0.05% is just too low. “The move is an attack on the restaurant and hospitality industries,” it says, “and converts their responsible customers into criminals.”
We can’t have a per se DUI standard that responsible drinkers would fail.