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Lowering the Legal BAC Limit and Its Impact on the Hospitality Industry

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March 28, 2016   |   By Gary Gruver


Having a drink with dinner before driving a car is legal for most adults in the United States. It’s also relatively safe – research shows drivers with blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels of .08 (the current legal BAC limit) are less impaired than drivers talking on a hands-free cellphone. Still, one federal agency is actively pushing to make any drinking before driving a thing of the past.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), a federal agency that advises Congress and the states on transportation safety policy, kicked off 2016 by recommending states lower their legal BAC limit for driving to .05 percent or even lower. The NTSB isn’t alone – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization and American Medical Association all endorse a .05 legal limit, and most European countries have legal limits of .05 or lower.

Impact on On-Premise Sales

A woman can reach .05 with as little as one drink. The average man can reach .05 BAC with just 2-3 drinks. Lowering the legal limit means few couples will opt to split a bottle of wine and many drivers will say no to a second (or perhaps even first) cocktail or beer. For restaurants that rely on consumers to drive to their locations, such as those operating in non-urban markets, a .05 legal limit will be a major blow to alcohol sales.

In the years since the entire country moved to .08, penalties for drinking and driving, even first time offenses barely over the legal limit, have increased. In more than half of states, a first time DUI offender with a .08 BAC level is forced to install an ignition interlock in his or her car. For most law-abiding diners, the risk of having to blow into an interlock to start their cars won’t be worth it.

.05 BAC Limit Won’t Stop Drunk Driving

A study of South Australia after the state lowered its BAC limit from .08 to .05 found that the lower limit did not significantly affect the number of alcohol-related fatalities. Similarly, a study of Denmark’s .05 law did not find a decrease in alcohol-related crashes in the first year after the law was adopted, but did find an increase in the number of drivers who said they would not consume any alcohol, to avoid violating the law.

It’s not hard to see why .05 doesn’t work. Moving from .1 to .08 in the United States did nothing to lower the proportion of traffic deaths attributed to intoxicated drivers. That’s because drivers at relatively low BAC levels don’t pose the greatest threat to traffic safety. More than two-thirds of drunk driving fatalities are caused by drivers with BAC levels of .15 percent or higher, and the average BAC of a drunk driver involved in a fatal crash is .16 percent – twice the current legal limit. Instead of targeting these dangerous drivers, a .05 limit penalizes responsible social drinkers.

Criminalizing .05 Is a Poor Use of Resources

With police budgets shrinking by the minute, it makes very little sense to divert valuable resources from catching dangerous drivers to pulling over individuals who may have had a beer or two while at dinner. The American Beverage Institute supports using state resources to ensure high-BAC and repeat offenders comply with orders to use ignition interlocks and keeping those interlocks on cars for longer periods of time. Hardcore drunk drivers continue to kill thousands of individuals every year; it’s time to unite our attention and refocus public policy on stopping those offenders from ever getting behind the wheel while drunk.