Transit board pushes to lower threshold for drunken driving

Drivers with a lower level of alcohol in their blood should be arrested for driving under the influence, a federal safety board is urging.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) voted Tuesday to recommend that the threshold for a driver to be arrested for drunken driving be lowered to 0.05 percent from the current national standard of 0.08 percent.

The five-member board, which investigates accidents and issues recommendations on safety standards, reached the decision at a meeting to discuss ways to eliminate drunken driving.

The NTSB recommendations are not binding, but suggest a shift in federal opinion about drunken driving standards. The recommendation will go to states to urge them to lower their limit on blood alcohol content.

If states institute the measure, the 0.05 blood alcohol content (BAC) standard would bring them into line with many nations in Europe and in Australia, though some countries have even lower tolerances.

According to a report from the board's 2012 forum on eliminating drunken driving, "The message there is 'don’t drive after drinking' rather than 'don’t drive drunk.'"

Drunken driving typically kills more than 10,000 people each year, but fatalities dipped below that number for the first time in 2011.

"The research clearly shows that drivers with a BAC above 0.05 are impaired and at a significantly greater risk of being involved in a crash where someone is killed or injured,” said the board's chairwoman, Deborah Hersman, in a statement.

"Many people believe that if a driver’s BAC is under the legal limit of 0.08, the driver is safe to drive," the board said in a report outlining its suggestions. "In reality, by the time a driver’s BAC reaches 0.08, his or her fatal crash risk has at least doubled, and some studies indicate it may be many times higher."

The recommendation was one of 19 unanimously endorsed by the NTSB, including increased targeting of repeat offenders and requiring offenders to use breath testing systems that prevent cars from starting if the driver's blood alcohol content is too high.

Safety advocates supported the effort to reduce impaired driving.

"In the U.S. one person dies every 53 minutes from an alcohol-related crash," said a statement from Sen. Frank Lautenberg, (D-N.J.), who has supported requiring offenders to use the breath testing systems. "Each of the recommendations issued by the NTSB will increase safety and reduce drunken driving fatalities and each deserves careful consideration.”

"MADD appreciates the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for bringing the American public’s attention to the fact that drinking and driving continues to be a major problem on our highways — killing almost 10,000 people a year — and that additional steps have to be taken to save the unnecessary loss of life and injuries that occur as a result of these crashes," the group said in a statement, noting that it supports elimination of all drunk driving.

"Above all, MADD strongly recommends that the safest course of action is to not drink and drive."

This story was last updated at 3:31 p.m.