When in 2000 Congress passed the Department of Transportation Appropriations Act of Fiscal Year 2001, establishing the .08 blood alcohol content limit and toughening the drunken driving laws in the U.S., Congress and President Bill Clinton,were applauded for cracking down on a nationwide problem.
The bill required that states implement the .08 percent BAC standards by October 2003. Those states that didn’t would lose federal highway fundings.
The organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving was a key player in making the BAC changes a reality. They lobbied lawmakers, citing studies that showed that a driver with 0.08 blood alcohol content is 11 times more likely to be involved in a fatal collision than a sober driver.
In 1999, there were 15,786 traffic fatalities caused by drunken drivers. In 2011, that number had fallen to 9,878. It was a great reduction in horrific accidents.
It makes sense, then, to consider lowering the legal limit further to .05, just as the National Transportation Safety Board recommended in May of this year. Our own police chief, too, voiced support of the proposal. After all, most industrialized countries have limits of .05.
But those countries also typically have more extensive public transportation options or are more pedestrian friendly. In theory, the change proposed by the NTSB is good.
Lower limits would mean fewer accidents, right?
• The decrease in fatalities could also be attributed to safer vehicles and increased driver awareness.
• It is also difficult to advocate for a law that will punish those who are already following the laws in effect. The changes would further criminalize a behavior many Americans already ignore.
• The changes could also punish businesses that serve alcohol because law-abiding customers — imbibers — would be reluctant to push the legal limit. It would also limit backyard barbecues, wine tasting events and other events where social drinking is generally accepted.
Cracking down on crime tends to be a popular approach to public policy and those who don’t support the changes may find themselves in the “soft on crime” category.
But it isn’t a matter of being soft on crime. Punishing those who break the laws — especially laws regarding public safety — is a worthy task.
The problem is, many of those who break the laws regarding legal limits of alcohol, don’t receive significant enough of a punishment on their first offense. A night in jail, probation and a slap on the wrists for first-time offenders is not enough of a deterrent. To some, it is a good story to share with friends and laugh over during the next round of beers.
If society, or government, wants to solve the problem of drunken driving, leave the laws that are on the books alone; rather, make the consequences of such convictions and plea deals more meaningful. In a word, harsher.