Drunk Driving: Is the Blood-Alcohol Limit Too Liberal?

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Miami Beach police officer K. Humphry (L) and Miami Beach police officer Kevin Millan check drivers at a DUI traffic checkpoint.

It's a typical busy summer night at Banken, the most popular nightclub in Kristianstad, Sweden. The patio outside is uncomfortably crowded and breathing room is hard to come by. Nearly everyone at the club is holding some sort of drink and soon a group of teenagers by the bar begin taking body shots of tequila. Around 12:30 in the morning, throngs of cabs begin to line up along the sidewalk outside. Chances are that very few — if any people at all — drive home tonight. After all, this is Sweden, where the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) limit for drives is a stringently low .02 g/100 ml.

Compare that to America, where the BAC limit remains at a practically libertine .08. How much is that exactly? According University of Oklahoma Police Department's BAC Calculator, a 180-lb male registers a .08 after consuming six 12 oz. beers or five gin-and-tonics in a span of two hours. Still, having the .08 standard is a legislative improvement. In previous years some states had their limit set at .15. That would be more than eight beers within two hours.

Or look at it this way. In June, a Massachusetts state trooper and father of four was killed after pulling over a driver who reportedly registered a .20 during a breathalyzer exam. Another driver then slammed into the pulled-over car, instantly killing the trooper who was standing next to it. The lawyer for driver of the second car says his client's BAC tested at .07, which is within the legal limit. Nevertheless, both men have been charged with drunk driving, with the second driver receiving the additional charges of vehicular homicide and speeding. Both men have pleaded not guilty to the charges. According to the International Center for Alcohol Policies, only 15 other countries (including Canada and New Zealand) have the same threshold as the United States. Most European nations carry a standard of .05 or lower and a few countries, such as the Czech Republic, have zero tolerance policies.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 11,773 people died in drunk driving related accidents in the United States in 2008. As these kinds of unnecessary deaths continue happening roughly every 45 minutes, the United States has maintained its .08 standard even as other countries across the world are attempting to lower the permitted BAC for drivers.

In Sweden, which changed its BAC threshold from .05 to .02 in 1990, the results have been dramatic. According to the World Health Organization and European Commission, of road fatalities in Sweden, roughly 16% were alcohol related. In the U.S., 31.7% of traffic fatalities were alcohol related in 2007. Other countries around the world have continued to modify their standards for "drink-driving." In Switzerland, where the limit was reduced from .08 to .05 in 2005, drunk driving deaths instantly declined. France saw similar results when it lowered its limit to .05 in 1995. Changes appear to be on the horizon in other countries as well. For example, in the past few years Denmark has discussed reducing the BAC threshold to .02.

Attitudes toward drunk driving appear to oscillate between countries. People in Sweden take drunk driving laws very seriously, says Eric Larsson, 34, a Stockholm native who moved to London five years ago. Larsson said that he found the laws in England — which allows a .08 BAC — to be far less sensible. "I could never drink two pints of beer then drive home like other people go ahead and do in England," says Larsson, who believes that more countries should adopt the Swedish standard.

There have been some U.S. attempts to toughen the drunk driving laws. Senators Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, and Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, introduced the ROADS SAFE Act earlier this year. The name of the proposed legislation is an acronym for "Research of Alcohol Detection Systems for Stopping Alcohol-related Fatalities Everywhere." If enacted, it would authorize $12 million annual funding for five years to the NHTSA Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) program in order to develop technology within vehicles to keep intoxicated individuals from driving (pegged to the current .08 limit). What type of impact would this have? It is estimated that this technology could prevent 8,000 deaths yearly. Based on American averages, that would mean there would be roughly three hours between every drunk driving death, which is better than the current 45 minutes. However, the numbers will always be better in Sweden.