BAC to the Future? More States Join the Move to Reform

a wooden map of the United States colored with the star-spangled banner and covered with smashed model carsFew consequences of alcohol consumption are as dramatic and tragic as motor vehicle collisions. As of 2021,13,384 people died in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes in the United States, one every 39 minutes. And while the operatic image of an incoherent vilain speeding the wrong way on the highway remains the popular perception, in fact, over 2,200 crashes involve drivers with BACs under 0.08, the current legal limit. Even a moderate tweak to the BAC level would save lives, and has the potential for protective knock-on effects as well.

This is not a radical proposal. The majority of high- and middle-income countries issue dangerous driving citations for BACs below 0.08, with a nominal standard being 0.05 (though some nations, such as Sweden and Japan, set it even lower). And it is making inroads in the United States. In 2018, Utah became the first state to voluntarily enact the 0.05 BAC standard for driving under the influence charges. A subsequent analysis by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed the initial years of the policy to be emphatic successes. Fatal crash rates declined 19.8% in Utah while the national rates declined 5.6%. Tourism and hospitality revenue, meanwhile, was unaffected.

Importantly, the number of stops for DUI remained unchanged. This stands to reason; absent an unlimited police force, total number of stops are dependent in large part on law enforcement capacity. However, in practice, police activity did not seem to be the same driver of increased road safety. Instead, Utah residents expressed greater awareness around alcohol consumption before driving, and greater anxiety around driving while intoxicated, after the bill passed.

This success has been seen by other states. California, of course, tried and failed to pass a Liam's Law in 2019, which would have put the largest state in the union in line with international best practices.* Other states continue the push.  Bills to lower the DUI threshold were introduced in:

"New York was once a leader in combating drinking and driving, but now our policies are outdated,” [bill author Assm. Jo Anne Simon] said. "Over 100 countries have lowered their blood alcohol content policies to 0.05 or less because the evidence is clear that there is an increased crash rate at 0.05."

"It is very clear to me that drunk driving is impacting the safety of our communities, and it is time that we do something," said [bill sponsor Sen. John] Lovick during a public hearing on Monday. "Drunk driving is a choice. Drunk driving collisions are avoidable."

"Unfortunately we’re at a point where so many of us have been touched by this. We’ve lost somebody that we love due to an alcohol-related crash, and it’s just unacceptable at this point," Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Christine Cohen said. "We see the need to save lives across the state of Connecticut and there’s an opportunity to do that."

[Maui Coalition for Drug-Free Youth Director] Rick Collins closed his remarks with this message “Hawai‘i has the sixth highest alcohol-impaired traffic fatality rate in the nation. We can do without that distinction. And we can save hundreds of lives in the process.“

All faced industry opposition, largely couched as concern for small bars and restaurants. And all, unfortunately, have stalled in their respective legislatures. But the post-COVID fatal crash surges keep the issues fresh, as a large town's worth of U.S. residents are wiped out every year by alcohol-related collisions. It feels like a matter of time before the country comes in line with common sense, evidence-based international standards. Unfortunately, this passing time continues to take lives. 

* Alcohol Justice continues to advocate for a reduced BAC threshold for DUI in California, in conjunction with enforcement reforms that would both increase road safety and reduce disparate impacts on racial and ethnic minority communities. Please contact us if for more information.

READ MORE about the fate of Liam's Law and similar 2019 efforts to reform BAC

READ MORE about alcohol-impaired driving in California