New report offers recommendations on reducing DUI, alcohol-related injuries and death

By Brian Lutenegger

A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—Getting to Zero Alcohol-Impaired Driving Fatalities: A Comprehensive Approach to a Persistent Problem—offers a recommended package of policies to reduce crashes and associated deaths. But alcohol-industry representatives and others, although recognizing the problem, express doubt about the effectiveness of the recommendations.

The report offers some alarming statistics. Someone dies every 49 minutes in the United States from an alcohol-impaired driving crash—defined as one where the driver had a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher—and about one third of all traffic fatalities were caused by an alcohol-impaired crash. Further, 40 percent of these fatalities were someone other than the driver. Although the number of alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities has been cut in half over the last 30 years, these crashes still kill more than 10,000 people each year.

Written by the National Academies’ Committee on Accelerating Progress to Reduce Alcohol-Impaired Driving Fatalities, the report makes the following policy recommendations for local, state, and federal governments:

  • Lower state per se laws for the BAC threshold for alcohol-impaired driving to 0.05 percent, down from 0.08 percent in all U.S. states for non-commercial drivers. Women over 120 pounds and men up to 160 pounds would reach this stricter standard after about two drinks, depending on a number of factors.
  • Increase use of sobriety checkpoints and DWI courts
  • Raise state and federal taxes on alcohol
  • Reduce the number of alcohol sales outlets and increase enforcement of illegal sales to those underage or already intoxicated
  • Consider tighter regulations on marketing of alcohol
  • Provide additional alternatives to driving to reduce DUI
  • Require vehicle ignition locks and other technology to prevent impaired drivers from being able to move their car
  • Make treatment and clinical intervention via the health care system more widely available

The National Transportation Safety Board has been among those calling for adoption of the 0.05 percent BAC standard nationwide, first doing so in 2013. This would bring the United States on par with other developed nations around the world, including many European countries and Australia. Impairment from alcohol consumption begins even below that stricter level. So far, Utah is the only U.S. state to adopt the 0.05 percent BAC standard, which will take effect there in December 2018.

The report also calls for alternatives to driving as one prong of the strategy. The recommendations include encouraging increased usage of transportation network companies like Uber or Lyft for ridesharing and additional public transportation options, particularly at night and on weekends. The report specifically calls out the need for transportation alternatives in rural areas, which experience a disproportionate number of alcohol-related crashes and deaths. Implementing these recommendations around transportation alternatives can also help municipalities and states achieve other worthy policy goals.

For each of the recommended policies, the authors suggest ways to implement them, such as asking the National Conference of State Legislatures to provide model legislation. They also note that it will require implementation of a package of policies such as those described in this report to change the culture around alcohol in the United States that leads to these crashes.

Other international studies examined alcohol consumption and its impacts on traffic safety in Europe and Australia. Certain countries with the strictest BAC limits in Europe—in some cases zero tolerance—do not necessarily have the best traffic outcomes. This is due to other factors such as the availability of alcohol and traditionally lax enforcement of alcohol-impaired driving laws in these countries, though policies are changing. The studies found that supportive policies are needed—besides simply lowering the BAC limit—to reduce alcohol consumption. Australia sees fewer alcohol-impaired traffic crashes than the U.S. due in part to its stricter BAC standard (0.05 percent) combined with higher costs for alcohol and more random testing for drivers.

But support for these changes is not universal. There are concerns about how easy it will be to detect drivers with a BAC of 0.05 percent or higher but less than 0.08 percent. Also, industry groups representing alcohol and restaurant interests, such as the American Beverage Institute, are in opposition, saying that a tougher standard wouldn’t deter repeat offenders, instead targeting social drinkers. They note that most fatalities occur at much higher levels—over 70 percent occur at BAC levels of 0.15 percent or above (with an average of 0.19 percent). They claim enforcement should be targeted at these individuals with higher BAC levels. Fewer than 2 percent of fatalities occur at the 0.05 percent level. And they also say that increasing taxes on alcohol, limiting availability, or banning advertising wouldn’t improve roadway safety.

There is consensus that something should be done about the problem of alcohol-related traffic fatalities. But there is disagreement over exactly how to tackle this problem. The National Academies’ report offers one comprehensive package of policies and solutions. It will clearly require a partnership between government at all levels, law enforcement, beverage and other industry groups, and additional stakeholders to solve the problem.

Brian Lutenegger is a Program Associate at Smart Growth America.