As most of us know, the legal limit for breath alcohol (BAC) while driving in the District of Columbia and Maryland is currently .08. And we all remember when it was .10. Now, the National Highway Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommends that the legal limit be lowered to .05 in an effort to reduce traffic fatalities and drunk driving.
But would a BAC of .05 really help to reduce traffic fatalities? Are traffic fatalities caused by drivers who have consumed alcoholic beverages with a BAC of .05, .06 or .07? The truth is that most drunk driving fatalities occur by those who have consumed larger quantities of alcoholic beverages and whose BAC is generally twice the legal limit, i.e., .16, or in many cases over .20.
We applaud the efforts of organizations with good intentions such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the NTSB. However, in order to reduce drunk driving-related traffic fatalities, there should be better enforcement of existing laws, greater access to and more availability of alcohol-related counseling and therapy centers, and fewer efforts to lower the legal limit for drinking and driving.
A reduction in the legal limit while driving to .05 will make it exceedingly difficult for many people to order a bottle of wine with dinner at a restaurant, have a few beers at Nationals Park or Camden Yards or visit their local watering hole for happy hour. Although it should be as plain as the nose on our collective faces, it is not illegal to drink and drive. If it were, then restaurants, bars, sports arenas and the like would have no parking lots. It is perfectly legal to have wine with your lasagna at your favorite Italian restaurant, pay your bill and then drive home. You just can’t overdo it. You cannot drink to the point where you are impaired by the consumption of alcoholic beverages. And the fact is that many people are not appreciably impaired when they reach .05.
If the legal limit is lowered to .05 this year, is a BAC of .025 far off? Can’t we then envision a day when there is a zero-tolerance policy on drinking and driving? The decision to live by a zero-tolerance policy should be left to individuals. It is wiser to let each person decide whether to have a drop of beer, wine or liquor before driving. Many of us grown-ups know our own limits.
If we go down this road and enact a limit of .05 today, we are not far off from a return to days of long ago. Remember the Eighteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and the enacting legislation known as the Volstead Act? Prohibition would last from January 17, 1920 until its repeal by the Twenty-first Amendment of the United States Constitution in 1933.
Prohibition created crime and turned a nation of recreational drinkers into criminals. It turned otherwise law-abiding individuals into law-breakers and saddled millions of people with criminal records. Prohibition needlessly resulted in wasteful spending for law enforcement, prosecutors and judges. Sound familiar? Today, the same war is being waged against minor users of marijuana. The prohibition against marijuana has similarly saddled millions of our youth with criminal records, making it difficult for them to find gainful employment or to pursue educational goals. And it overburdens the already depleted budgets of police, prosecutors, public defenders, and the courts.
Do we really want to burden law-abiding productive citizens with DUI convictions simply because they had a few glasses of wine with dinner, were not appreciably impaired, but did have a BAC of 0.5? If tomorrow and tomorrow leads us to a BAC of 0.25 and then 0.00, then our grandmothers and teenagers will be dragged to court to face criminal prosecution. If so, we will have effectively returned to Prohibition because no sane-minded individual will dare to order a beer while attending a Nats, Redskins or Caps game before driving home.
Let’s hope not. And let’s focus on the big picture.