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Blood Alcohol Content or Impairment

Make your choice already. Impairment and blood alcohol content (BAC) are not interchangeable terms, but recently the NTSB has decided that they will ignore that fact and push the states to ignore it once again. One of many proposals unveiled is to lower the BAC limit from .08, where it is now, to .05, where many other countries now have it. The justification is that in the places where it has been done, fatalities from drunk driving has fallen.

However, just like when comparing the US to other countries regarding gun control, you can’t just throw the numbers out and say what has caused observed changes. Since 1991, the US drunk driving fatality rate has fallen by 63%, most of the countries that have reduced the BAC limit to .05 have seen roughly the same decline. That would lead me to believe that the change probably didn’t have the effect that MADD and others would have us believe.

We need to incorporate culture and some other variables as well to make a fair comparison. Drunk driving is a popular subject even by internet standards, so go have a google at the data, but I’ll point out that one of the variables not controlled for is the fact that Americans don’t have the same access to public transportation that those in other countries have, at least outside of population centers, we have a much larger rural population, so more people have to drive to get anywhere they want to go.

Getting back to the point I want to make, we are always fixated on the wrong things. I don’t think there should be a legal BAC limit for driving. That’s because BAC doesn’t matter, impairment does. I can understand the need for a hard limit, it may help people grasp how much they can drink if they want to drive, but the problem with that is .08 for me and .08 for anyone else does not result in the same level of impairment. The law rightly recognizes this and so you may be arrested, charged, and convicted of DUI even if your BAC is .05.

The right way to deal with this, at least in my opinion, is to worry less about BAC and more about how we go about measuring the real level of impairment. As I recently said in a thread on Facebook, if someone had a 50/50 blood/alcohol mix flowing through their veins, I’m fine with them driving, as long as they are not impaired*.

Frankly, I’m beginning to wonder what the problem is that we are trying to address. Is it alcohol in the blood, or is it impairment? Once again, they are not interchangeable terms. I tell my students that there is no moral difference between being impaired by your cell phone or a delicious hamburger, and driving blind drunk. Stop worrying about BAC, it’s completely beside the point. We don’t need to make changes, because an arbitrary line is the sand does not actually inform us of anything in reality.

*Now that would obviously impair a person, in fact, it’s more than 150 times the level of alcohol needed to kill most people (the LD50 is around .40%), but my point is that BAC doesn’t matter.

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