Road Worrier

Road Worrier: If you blow a .05, safety board says you’re not fit to drive

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comMay 20, 2013 

Mike Blalock calculates that a strict new alcohol impairment standard proposed for drivers would spoil the fun for sports-and-beer fans.

The National Transportation Safety Board last week urged state legislatures to lower the allowable blood-alcohol concentration from the current level, .08 percent, to .05 percent.

“One basketball game at the local sports bar is all it would take” for an average man to reach an .05 limit, Blalock, 62, of Raleigh said Monday. “A 120-pound spouse would have to leave at half-time. I don’t think anybody with a .05 level is impaired.”

The safety board called for an .05 DWI standard and other steps to tackle the nation’s stubborn, steady toll of alcohol-related traffic deaths. Impaired drivers have been involved in about 30 percent of the deaths on our streets and highways, year in and year out, since the mid-1990s.

In 2011, 392 people died in North Carolina and 9,878 died across the country in alcohol-related crashes, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says.

The .05 proposal was roundly criticized Monday among more than two dozen readers who offered comments by phone and email. Many, like Blalock, said they feel fine about driving home from a bar or restaurant after a drink or two.

“I think lowering it to that .05 rate would ensnare a lot of very socially responsible drinkers who might have a beer or a beer and a half, and find themselves caught in a DWI situation,” said Richard Blake, 64, of Apex.

Cliff Leath worried about the restaurants themselves.

“You’ve got restaurants that are able to stay in business because they serve alcohol,” said Leath, 64, of Chapel Hill. “If you have folks that don’t go out because they’re afraid of driving after they have a drink, that affects that part of the restaurant business.”

The United States and Canada are almost alone in setting the legal mark for driver intoxication as high as .08 on the Breathalyzer test. Most countries in Europe, Asia and South America say you’re too drunk to drive if you blow an .05.

An NTSB report said most drivers suffer a loss in vision and cognitive ability by the time they reach the .05 mark. Allowing those drivers to stay on the road is costing lives, the board said.

“The research clearly shows that drivers with a (blood-alcohol concentration) above .05 are impaired and at a significantly greater risk of being involved in a crash where someone is killed or injured,” Deborah A.P. Hersman, the NTSB chairwoman, said last week.

The relevant body chemistry can vary greatly by weight and other factors, but experts say that a 180-pound man frequently will hit the .08 limit after downing about four drinks (12-ounce beers or four-ounce glasses of wine) within 90 minutes. For a 130-pound woman, it’s about three drinks.

Move the DWI standard to .05, and it’s roughly three drinks for the same man and two for the woman.

William Fay, a Raleigh lawyer who represents DWI defendants, said he sees “maybe some slight impairment” in clients who blow .08 or .09. He has not seen evidence to justify an .05 standard.

“From a selfish perspective, I’d be all for it – because it means more DWIs and more business for me,” Fay said. “But I don’t think it’s good for society.”

Raleigh Police Lt. Tim Tomczak works with plenty of DWI defendants, too. He trains officers to conduct sobriety tests, and he oversees crash investigations. More than 50 times during his 16-year career, he has knocked at somebody’s door to deliver the news that somebody they loved was dead.

“And many of those are because someone has chosen to drink and drive,” Tomczak said.

He has read the studies and keeps them on his desk and in his car. He has arrested drivers who were well under the .08 mark – and well into intoxication. He has participated in training exercises that document the cumulative effects of alcohol, drink by drink.

“Your reaction time begins to slow at about .04 or .05,” Tomczak said. “At .08 is when your vision is impaired.”

The NTSB only has the power to make recommendations, and its new proposal has not been taken up by legislators in Washington or Raleigh. But a similar push more than a decade ago resulted in a federal law that eventually forced all the states, by 2004, to cut the DWI mark from .1 percent to its present level, .08.

The law says you’re impaired if you register an .08 or higher. Some drivers who register lower alcohol levels are found guilty of DWI, too, when judges determine that they were appreciably impaired.

Speaking only for himself, Tomczak says he thinks an .05 standard would get more impaired drivers off the road. He doesn’t buy the arguments from folks who want to protect the pleasures of social drinking and driving.

“I understand people are talking about the freedom to do this,” Tomczak said. “If you want to get snookered in your living room, that’s fine. But the moment you take it on the highways, it’s everybody’s problem. And we should all have a right to decide what that alcohol limit should be.”

Make contact: 919-829-4527 or bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com. On the Web at twitter.com/Road_Worrier/ and blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown/. Please include address and daytime phone.

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