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The Wrong Approach 

My best friend was killed by a drunk driver. It was nine years ago, and I am still angry. He was living in Maui and returning from lunch hour to visit his one-month old son when a woman, fresh from a booze cruise, smashed into him. His car stopped her from careening off the highway and over a cliff. He was a world-class kayaker, a nationally ranked downhill skier in college and a risk-taker. It seemed both ironic and cruel that he would be killed at noon on a sunny Friday afternoon, driving on a wide-open stretch of road. I don't remember her blood-alcohol (BAC) level, but she was smashed. No, I do not have a tolerance for drunk driving. But the approach recommended two weeks ago by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to push down allowable BAC from .08 to .05 is not the right approach—we're giving it THE BOOT. Lowering BAC doesn't make sense, nor will it solve the primary problems of drunk driving—primarily because .05 isn't anywhere near drunk.

The woman who killed my friend received six months in prison. Six months! Her sentence wasn't determined by her BAC; it was determined by lax punishments assigned to drunk drivers—and, again, the word to underscore is "drunk."

Current BAC levels roughly allow a person to consume a beer or glass of wine within an hour before driving. Those levels are reasonable. The levels encouraged by NTSB would nearly halve that—so that an average-sized man would be able to have a half of beer within an hour before getting on the road. That isn't drunk. Yes, some people do drive drunk, but the vast majority of us drink reasonably and responsibly—and we need to recognize the differences between those two groups and not criminalize people who are drinking reasonably. For example, I spent the past two weekends at Willamette Valley Vineyards. From the pinot noir tasters, my BAC probably pushed to .05, a level currently acceptable, but under the recommended guidelines, not.

Thirty years ago, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, and pushed the drinking age from 18 to 21. Although alcohol laws are left to be determined by individual states, Congress muscled its way into the game by threatening to remove interstate funding for any state refusing to raise its drinking age. What is important to recognize about that law is that it was tied directly to statistics and strong research; at the time, a large percentage of alcohol-related traffic accidents were caused by teenagers. The results from pushing up the drinking age has been an expected reduction in traffic fatalities, although the rates remain shamefully high, with 10,000-some deaths linked to drunk drivers each year.

But the same scientific approach cannot be said for pushing the BAC to such a low level. The 10,000 traffic accidents are not being caused by drivers having a single pint or a glass of wine; they are being caused by drivers with three-plus drinks in their systems.

Oregon currently has relatively strict laws to punish convicted drunk drivers, suspending licenses for a year and doing even more to penalize repeat offenders. It is this group that should be most concentrated on—the repeat offenders and the ones who are driving at levels that truly impair reaction times and driving skills. Reducing the BAC limit to such a low level would only criminalize reasonable drinkers. SW


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