Recommendation for change in DUI law goes too far
The State of Ohio toughened its drunk-driving laws 30 years ago this spring resulting in a steady decline of alcohol-related fatalities from 966 in 1982 to 358 in 2011, according to statistics from the United States Department of Transportation.
The biggest decrease occurred during the first 10 years. The decline has leveled off since then as it has in other states. That has prompted the National Traffic Safety Transportation Board to issue a report calling for tougher measures including the controversial reduction of the threshold blood alcohol content from .08 to .05 percent.
The report also calls for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to:
•Continue high visibility sobriety checkpoints and media campaigns;
•Expand use of ignition interlock systems;
•Use DUI courts and other measures to reduce recidivism.
The goal is zero alcohol-related crashes, injuries and fatalities which is what you’d expect coming from the transportation safety board. However, the recommendations go a step too far. The lowering of the BAC is a money grab for some to profit off social drinkers. It will brand more young people as criminals restricting their opportunities for certain jobs and saddling them with stiff fines and higher insurance rates while doing little to address the real problem—the drunk.
Consider that statistics from the Ohio Department of Public Safety show that in 2011 of 192 alcohol-related fatalities in which a BAC was taken, 183 were caused by drivers with a BAC of .10 and above. Further, 106 of these drivers registered a BAC of .20 and above. Only nine deaths were caused by drivers with a BAC of .09 and below.
Ohio obviously has a bigger problem with the problem drinker, not the social drinker. A woman who weighs 120 pounds, or a man who weighs 160 pounds, can exceed the .05 BAC limit with two drinks in an hour. Just having a drink or two with dinner can put you at risk for a DUI under the lower limit. The restaurant and bar industry would be harmed while the insurance industry and government would benefit and there would be a negligible impact on public safety.
Area billboards show a young man taking a breathalyzer test with the caption, “You just blew $10,000.” Last month, I interviewed a local insurance agent and an attorney who has spent 23 years defending drivers charged with DUI to determine if the claim was true. I found the cost of a DUI can range from a low of $2,800 to a possible $14,750. The question becomes, should someone who is a minimal risk to the public for having a couple of drinks bear this cost as well as the burden that can accompany a DUI conviction in terms of limited job opportunities?
The .05 limit puts us one step closer to prohibition while gaining little in the way of safety.
The other recommendations, however, have merit. The Center for Disease Control concludes sobriety checkpoints and subsequent media coverage reduce alcohol-related crashes 20 percent. The CDC also states ignition interlock systems have proven effective and their use has more than doubled nationwide from 100,000 units in 2006 to more than 200,000 in 2010.
Increasing the use of these two deterrents, especially the ignition interlock system for multiple offenders and those who blow higher than .10, would be more reasonable. The interlock system prevents a driver from starting a car if the BAC is above a specified level.
Statistics show most fatal crashes occur at night and on the weekend. Sobriety checkpoints during these times, while an inconvenience, are a visible deterrent. Thirty-one percent of fatal crashes on the weekend during 2011 were alcohol-related versus 15 percent during the week.
These new recommendations, if acted upon, will continue to stem the carnage drunk drivers inflict. In 1983, Ohio toughened its law by implementing the .10 BAC limit, requiring a minimum 72-hour jail sentence for first time offenders, license suspension of 60 days to three years and a fine of $150 to $1,000. Repeat offenders faced more severe penalties including jail sentences of up to one year and license suspension of up to 10 years. Since then, threatened by loss of federal highway funds, the state has lowered that limit to .08 and implemented a zero tolerance stance for drivers under 21 and tougher sanctions against drivers who test above .17.
Any traffic-related death is tragic. Most of the recommendations by the National Traffic Safety Transportation Board address the problem drinkers—the multiple offenders and those who can’t stop after two drinks. Implement these, but don’t punish the responsible social drinker.