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Would Lowering The Drunk Driving Threshold Make Us Safer?


Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended lowering the blood alcohol content threshold for drunken driving from .08 to .05. The NTSB argues this could save millions of lives each year, but critics beg to differ. Some say lack of enforcement is the problem. Others point to our casual attitude about drinking and driving. Meanwhile, lowering the threshold could have implications for law enforcement, bartenders, maybe your dinner party.

If passed, how would the new limit change what you do? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us now is LZ Granderson. He's a contributor to CNN and a senior writer for ESPN. He wrote about this proposal in a column for CNN.com, and joins us by Skype from Brooklyn. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

LZ GRANDERSON: Hey, thank you very much for having me.

LUDDEN: So, LZ, why not lower the limit for drunk driving?

GRANDERSON: Well, first of all, I want to be clear that I'm not - it's not that I'm pro-DUI. I'm not pro-drinking and driving. It's just when I look at the statistics and I see that in 2010, you had adults doing self-reporting, saying that they were drinking and driving at least 112 million times during 2010, and we know that only 1 percent of people were arrested. So 1.4 million drivers were arrested for drinking and driving, even though we self-reported 120 - 112 million times that we were doing it.

So it seems to me that the issue isn't necessarily whether or not we should be going from .8 to .5, but what are we doing to make sure that we can increase the number of people who we're taken off the roads who are currently legally drunk. I mean, that's a huge gap, 112 million times self-reported, and we only arrested 1.4 million drivers.

LUDDEN: Of course, we don't know the blood alcohol level of all those self-reporters, right? But you're not buying that they're all, you know, lower than .05.


GRANDERSON: No. In fact, you know, if you think about, you know, what the science tells us about drinking and that the average male, at 180 pounds, you know, as many as little as two drinks can register a .05. But I'm pretty sure if you ask the average male if two drinks is enough to make him drunk, I'm pretty sure he'll tell you no.

LUDDEN: So you write that this goal - the NTSB says their goal is really zero deaths from drunken driving. You write that is noble, but unattainable.

GRANDERSON: Well, you know, it's always noble to say you're going to end something that's terrible. We're going to end racism. We're going to end sexism. We're going have no murders here. We're going to do this, do that. So, you know, it's noble in the same sense that all those goals that we said are noble. But then we need to be practical. We need to be pragmatic. We need to think about what can we actually do that's attainable. And to me, if you want to address the issues of the 10,000 people who have lost their lives to alcohol-related car injuries, then what you need is a system that's attainable. What you need are goals that are attainable.

And again, I keep going back to this self-reporting number and the fact that we've only arrested 1.4 million. If we don't have the resources to actually arrest people who are drunk at .08, how are we going to catch people who are supposedly drunk at .05?

LUDDEN: So resources, how do you suggest then that we get more? It's time of tight budgets.

GRANDERSON: Yeah. You know, the - this isn't an issue that's unique to the United States. In fact, if you look at some of the polls - I think I saw one with U.S. News & World Report, which listed the top 25 drinking nations in the world, and the United States wasn't even among them. So here's a case where USA, USA, we're not even number one in drinking. The World Health Organization has been dealing with this problem collectively. And one of the things that they talked about wasn't - you know, in addition to enforcing the current laws, was perhaps imposing a higher sales tax on alcohol beverages that are purchased in restaurants and bars, you know, financially discouraging people from binge drinking. But then also being able to create a new revenue in which you could help shore up the enforcement of the laws. So if you add an extra surcharge to drinking, you know, X number of beers, whatever, that might theoretically be (unintelligible) towards increased police representation in the streets so that hopefully we can address the issue of drinking and driving without there being tragedies.

LUDDEN: All right. If the threshold for drunken driving goes down, how would it affect you, if you're a law enforcement officer, bartender or a frequent host of parties? Call us at 800-989-8255. LZ Granderson, how, though, would you go about enforcement? What do you think is needed?

GRANDERSON: You know, I know this makes people nervous, because there's, you know, there's a sense of it being a police state, but I am a fan of checkpoints. You know, I think random checkpoints, you know, particularly on the weekends, is not necessarily a bad idea.

LUDDEN: I can see the news articles already.


LUDDEN: People up in arms.

GRANDERSON: You know, if we really wanted to be, you know, really aggressive about it, right, what we could do is just simply build a police station near any bar that has a happy hour, because chances are you're going to get somebody. I don't think we'll go for that. So I think a random checkpoint is a happy medium.

You know, and then also just making sure that our laws are clearly putting the onus on these bars and restaurants that are serving visibly drunk people, that they are suffering some sort of repercussions for doing that. That if you get two strikes, for instance, for visibly serving a drunk person that you automatically lose your liquor license. That kind of fear may actually help, you know, limit the number of checkpoints you may have to have.

LUDDEN: Uh-huh. Someone from the National State - Transportation Safety Board actually wrote in The New York Times recently that countries - many of the countries with the most significant reductions in traffic deaths have random breath testing as a routine enforcement strategy. She says this is not permitted in the U.S., but suggests we could do sobriety checkpoints. Let's get a call from Todd in Rochester, New York. Welcome to the program.

TODD: Hi. Well, what the problem, I think, with this potential law is if it goes into effect, I think we as Americans believe that we ought to be able to have a beer and a hot dog at a ballgame, or have a glass of wine with dinner. And the problem with reducing the threshold from a .08 to a .05 in New York State is that all of a sudden we're going from an intoxication standard to an impairment standard.

And clearly we're not at a point - drunk driving started - the use of the word drunk driving, the legal threshold was well - was .15 and above. And it went to .10, .08. The other problem - and now we're - we are proposing down to .05. The other problem with it is, at .05 I may - the .05 blood alcohol level may not affect my ability to drive at all.

And yet I might meet the legal threshold for an arrest and for a prosecution. And are we at a point where we want to put most Americans in jail or arrest most Americans for having a drink? I think not. I think most Americans are going to argue, there's going to be pushback.

LUDDEN: All right. Todd, thank you so much for the phone call.

TODD: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: LZ, I have a little factsheet here that talks about the effects on driving at .05 blood alcohol content level. It says reduced coordination, reduced ability to the track moving objects, difficulty steering, reduced response to emergency driving situations. Obviously, as our caller just pointed out, it's different for every person, the influence affects people differently.

GRANDERSON: Absolutely. And, you know, though those terms sound specific, we really don't know what that means, you know, how much is this reduction that you're talking about. Are we talking, you know, something within milliseconds that are done within a test with computers, or are we actually talking about testing someone the road in a controlled environment. We really don't know.

But I think, you know, what's really going to help the board's case (unintelligible) this argument, if they are able to prove that there's a significant number of alcohol-related injuries and deaths caused by people with a .05 blood level. If he can prove that to the American people, then I think you'll find an environment a little bit more open to having this discussion. But right now it seems random. And I read through the report, and I couldn't see a clear indication that that reduction from .08 to .05 is going to greatly limit the number of deaths that we've seen because of alcohol-related driving.

So if this board can't prove that to the American people, then it won't be able to get enough politicians behind it to support it, because who's going to want to deal with the lobbyists for both alcohol and food, as well as bar owners and restaurant owners in their district and their constituencies that's going to cost them money, and they don't have the science to support this move...


GRANDERSON: It just seems like a conversation that's going nowhere.

LUDDEN: You called a random number, but we should point out, a number of other countries do have a .05 limit. And the NTSB says that a number of them did see a big drop in traffic deaths when they went down there. Let's take a call. Mitch is in Placerville, California. Hi, Mitch.

MITCH: Hi. Nice to speak with you.

LUDDEN: Thanks for calling. Go right ahead.

MITCH: I work in a tasting room and we have a great wine industry here in Placerville, and I'm concerned that if we move to a .5 level that individuals wouldn't even be able to sample the wines to decide what they want to take home with them. When I show off our different wines, often people will want to look at three or four selections and then consider maybe having a glass as well. And I wouldn't be able to provide that for somebody if they were having such a low level as .5.

LUDDEN: Huh. Have you ever had to cut anyone off at this point? Has it been an issue?

MITCH: You know, we always assert responsible hospitality, meaning that we make sure that our guests are - either have a ride home that is a designated driver or that they're limiting their drinks. Often they'll switch over to providing water. But we haven't had any problems with individuals overindulging that I'm aware of with the current level at .8. And when they...

LUDDEN: Oh eight - you should say point oh eight.

MITCH: Point oh eight. I'm sorry. Yes. But at that point they're fully competent to drive home when they leave. And I think that to move it to a .05 would be to put individuals at risk of arrest who are fully competent to get themselves home.

LUDDEN: All right. Mitch, thanks so much for the call. And...

MITCH: Sure...

LUDDEN: Oops. Sorry there, Mitch. Thank you. And let's turn now to Ryan, who is Nashville. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN: Hi. So I'm a doorman at a nightclub in Nashville and I have been - I've been doing that job for about 10 years. In my experience, the people who habitually drive while impaired are well over - I have no scientific evidence. I don't have breathalyzer on me at all times. But in my opinion, I would speculate that they'd be over .10.


RYAN: And they're very confident about their state and, you know, they'll tell you I'm sober as a judge and I'll prove it to you right now. And as they get in their cars, you know, I feel concerned. You know, most of the time, I don't see them actually get into car. But I have little to no control over what they do after that - after they leave my bar.

LUDDEN: So you wouldn't be in a position to really say anything? I mean, do you get tips from them? Do you want to keep on a good humor?

RYAN: Well, you know, you never want people to walk up and, you know, immediately feel threatened by you. But you definitely want them to feel like they need to behave themselves, so you don't, you know, hold a taser to their face and say show me your ID or, you know, anything like that. But, you know, my point is that by reducing the limit, I don't feel that you're deterring anyone from driving drunk in the future. These people that are habitually doing it, most of the people they see doing it are not responsible drinkers to begin with.

LUDDEN: Ryan, thank you so much. We appreciate the call.

RYAN: Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get one more in. Rashin(ph) is in Charlotte, North Carolina, if I can bring her up here. I can't. There we are. Rashin, how are you?

RASHIN: I'm doing great. How are you doing?

LUDDEN: Good. Go right ahead.

RASHIN: Yes. So I was calling. I was - awful personal experience after about 20 years in the restaurant bar industry. I can tell you that the main problem is not going to come with dropping it down to .05. From a personal experience, I've already seen that there's numerous laws that are already in effect that are going to hold bars, restaurants liable for if they do serve somebody that's intoxicated. And I've had to turn down many people after a certain amount of drinks and kind of force them to drag it out and wait. And we offer free taxi services.

So the .05 is basically just going to change the DWI that's already in almost every state to a DUI. It seems like more of just a way to generate revenue without actually is solving the problem at all.

LUDDEN: Huh. And how do you make that call, Rashin? How do you decide this? I mean, if you don't have a breathalyzer with you, how do you make that call?

RASHIN: You can make the call off of just saying how the person has been. You know as somebody - well, me personally, I've had DUIs myself, so I know what it's like to be on both sides of those limits. And I train my staff and my bartenders, we all get trained to be able to see somebody's appearance as they come in the restaurant, notice what their eating, if they're even eating, see how often they're drinking, try to suggest nonalcoholic beverages and keep them there. And if all possible, deter them from driving, even if it means that the restaurant or establishment itself will pay for the taxicab or...

LUDDEN: And do you get pushback? Have you had trouble with people when you try to do this?

RASHIN: For the most part, you don't have too much trouble at all. If people see that they're getting that far, other people around in the bar will help you out, and they will - people will notice. And if it gets real bad, then we are instructed to pick up the phone and call the cops ourselves because we know that our establishment is going to be held liable if he goes out and does something. But with laws like this already in place, there's no purpose of dropping it back down. It seems like just another way to generate money or to get fanfare on something that everybody is against, which is drunk driving.

LUDDEN: All right. Rashin, thank you so much for the call. We have an email from Dave in Redwood City, California: I'd like to be able to check out a breathalyzer for free with a deposit, of course, from a liquor store or even the public library to use at a party for guests heading out the door. Subsidized costs from liquor taxes.

OK. LZ Granderson, how about that idea?


GRANDERSON: Well, you know, having breathalyzers attached to vehicles and the vehicle won't start if you're over .08 would be a good step in the right direction. I don't know about having, you know, (unintelligible) at your party because then you still have the (unintelligible) of whether or not you're going to follow through once the person does seem to register above the legal limit. And I just want to, you know, point out that while it is true that other nations have dropped it to .05, and we've seen a drop in the deaths, that didn't happen in a vacuum. You know, there are other resources that were also involved.

LUDDEN: Law enforcement, for example. That's right. LZ Granderson is a contributor to CNN and is senior writer for ESPN. You could find a link to his CNN op-ed, "Don't Lower the Threshold on Drunken Driving," on our website. He joined us from Brooklyn. Thank you so much.

GRANDERSON: Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: Tomorrow, Neal Conan is back and so is Political Junkie Ken Rudin. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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