Proposed DUI limit is a sobering limit

The National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation this week that all 50 states lower their legal blood alcohol limits for driving under the influence of alcohol from 0.08 to 0.05 percent shouldn’t be too frightening for Coloradans.

After all, drivers in Colorado have had to deal with the 0.05 limit for decades. Get caught driving with that much alcohol in your blood in this state, and you will face the lesser charge of driving while ability impaired, not driving under the influence. Even so, a DWAI conviction can get you jail time, community service, a fine of up to $500 and a hike in your auto insurance.

The NTSB recommendation to make the lower blood-alcohol limit the standard for DUI in every state raises several issues, however.

First, there is the question of whether the federal government should attempt to dictate to individual states what their state laws should be.

Colorado’s two-tiered standard for drunk driving works fine, punishing the most serious alcohol offenders — those who are far more likely to be involved in a drunk-driving accident — while giving those caught driving with a lesser amount of booze in the blood what is essentially a costly legal shot across the bow, warning them to temper their drinking if they are going to drive.

Why should Colorado change its system to meet the federal recommendation?

The NTSB has no power to compel states to follow its recommendations, but other federal agencies do. When the push was on to get states to lower their legal blood-alcohol limits to 0.08 percent, Congress used the threat of withholding Federal Highway Administration funding from states that refused to comply as a cudgel to force them to lower their limits.

There is also the question of how effective the lower standard would actually be in reducing highway deaths.

The NTSB says that lowering the standard from 0.08 to 0.05 percent would save 500 to 800 lives a year, because even that low level of alcohol in the bloodstream can significantly impair reflexes. But others aren’t so sure.

The American Beverage Institute, a trade group representing restaurants, says that 70 percent of alcohol-related traffic fatalities are caused by drivers with blood-alcohol readings of .15 percent or higher, meaning they have had seven or eight drinks. An average-size woman who has only one drink could reach the .05 limit, the group said.

A number of people believe that new technology offers the best means of reducing drunk driving — things such as steering locks that would force a convicted drunk driver to take a breath test before he or she could operate a vehicle. And those sound like promising ideas.

This country has made great strides over the past 25 years in reducing drunk-driving deaths, and that effort should continue with strict enforcement and new technology.

Furthermore, while we’re not eager to see a new federal mandate forced upon the states, Coloradans who comply with this state’s existing drunk driving laws have little to worry about.


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