There’s more to the NTSB Report than.05 Blood Alcohol Level…

On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its report: “Reaching Zero: Actions to Reduce Alcohol-Impaired Driving.” A call to action, the report issued recommendations to curb the 10,000 alcohol-related yearly highway deaths. The easy take-away from the press release was the call for states to reduce their .08 Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) DUI laws to .05 as it is in much of the developed world. Currently, all states define driving at or above .08 BAC as a crime.

This recommendation drew a great deal of press coverage; however, the report also calls for expansion of some other policies which didn’t necessarily make the headlines but that may prove to be far more politically palatable.

They include:

  • High Visibility Enforcement: The NTSB recommends that states utilize their impaired driving prevention plan or highway safety plan to increase the provisions necessary for high visibility enforcement. These enforcement mechanisms, such as routine traffic stops and sobriety checkpoints equipped with alcohol-sensing technology, are intended to discourage impaired drivers from taking to roads and to catch those who do.
  • Alcohol Ignition Interlock Systems: The board calls on states to use their Highway Safety Plan to target recidivism and repeat offenders. An important piece of technology in that battle is the alcohol ignition interlock system which tests the blood alcohol level of the driver before allowing the driver to start the vehicle’s engine. The NTSB calls for states to incorporate this technology into a larger license suspension and revocation program.  While all states have some sort of policy regarding this technology, the report suggests that all states require alcohol ignition interlock systems be utilized for all convicted DUI offenses; only 17 states currently have such a requirement.
  • Reporting: The NTSB also calls for states to enact legislation, regulations and/or procedures intended to increase the collection and reporting of BAC test results. Currently 45 states and Puerto Rico have low report rates for these results. The NTSB also calls on states to collect the “Place of Last Drink” data as a part of their reporting push. 

The NTSB was influential in pushing for the current .08 BAC level and successfully lobbied the federal government to create grant awards for compliance through the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (1998) and punishments for noncompliance (withheld highway dollars) through the DOT Appropriations Act of FY 2001. With a new federal surface transportation authorization bill over the horizon it is likely that the NTSB will call for the federal government to place new pressure on states to create stricter DUI laws.

Mixed Alliances and Strange Bedfellows

The NTSB probably has an uphill battle in front of them as their usual coalition appears fractured. Major DUI policy advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and some state officials are skeptical of the marquee recommendation. In a rare agreement with the American Beverage Institute,  MADD President Jan Withers thought the .05 BAC threshold might not be the right policy at this time. To be clear, MADD is not against the change, but they, and many others, are concerned that the political fight to move the threshold down may be too great.

Instead MADD reportedly wants to spend their time, money and energy advocating for policies which mandate ignition interlock systems and for laws that increase high visibility enforcement.  MADD representative Frank Hamilton felt that these policies would save more lives as the fight to move to .05 could take as long as, or longer, than the 21 years required to persuade all 50 states to move to .08.

Current State Activity on Impaired Driving

North Dakota: The state legislature passed stricter laws in April which doubled jail time for repeat offenders and increased fines. Lawmakers, in reaction to a pair of horrific wrecks, created a mandatory two-day jail sentence for drivers above .15 BAC and a mandatory yearlong sobriety program for repeat offenders. The new law sets the first offense as a Class B Misdemeanor, the second offense as a Class C Misdemeanor and any further convictions as a Class C Felony. 

New York: A New York State Senator has introduced a bill that would require all buses to be fitted with an Alcohol Ignition Interlock System. While equipping the approximately 58,000 state school buses with this technology would cost up to $100,000,000, the bill only calls for the technology to be implemented on new buses, allowing the program to be implemented over time and to be absorbed into the capital budget.

Wisconsin: The State Assembly overwhelmingly approved a bill that would allow bars and liquor stores to sue underage patrons who misrepresent themselves as 21 or older. A successful case could net $1,000 dollars for the business.  State Rep. Andre Jacque (R) introduced the bill and believes that the potential law could reduce underage binge drinking and drunk driving.  The Assembly also approved a bill that clarified a 2009 law which mandated prison sentences for certain repeat offenders. A state appeals court had ruled in April that the technical language allowed judge discretion on the matter. Both bills have received support from the powerful Tavern League and now move to the Senate. A CDC study ranked Wisconsin first in the nation in binge drinking (five or more drinks on one occasion for men and four or more for women). 

Washington: The Washington State Senate passed a bill which adds 10 days in jail to the minimum sentence for a DUI and makes drunk driving a felony on the fourth conviction. Washington already requires ignition interlock systems for all DUI convictions. The new bill also aims to fill gaps in enforcement by requiring the device to be installed before repeat offenders are released from jail following an arrest.