By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
A scenario that haunts the imagination of millions of Southland drivers is the wrong-way freeway crash. One study reported that more than 50 percent of such crashes involve alcohol and more than 5 percent involve drugs.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the same agency advocating for a move to a 0.05 percent BAC limit "to save lives," analyzed the data in hundreds of wrong-way crashes. The agency found that of the 1,150 wrong-way drivers involved in fatal collisions whose BAC was known, 684, or 59 percent, had BAC levels at or above 0.15 percent.
In the course of a week in June 2013, the Antelope Valley Freeway was rocked by not one, but two crashes caused by wrong-way drivers. The first, allegedly caused by a driver high on meth, injured 13 people and shut down the freeway for hours. The second took the life of a 77-year-old pastor and seriously injured two of his congregants. That wrong-way driver, who also suffered major injuries, was arrested on suspicion of DUI.
The familiar checkpoints that slow traffic to a standstill on weekends and holidays around Orange County may or may not deter people from drinking and driving. But what they typically don't accomplish is the arrest of drunken drivers. For example, on May 4 and 5 (Friday night and Saturday morning), 1,513 cars passed through a checkpoint at Newport Boulevard and Finley Avenue in Newport Beach. No DUI arrests were made, but 12 citations were issued for other violations.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) estimates that communities that consistently use sobriety checkpoints reduce DUI incidents up to eight times as much as communities that use roving patrols alone. But others, particularly defense attorneys, deride the checkpoints as costly TSA-like "security theater," often manned by police on overtime pay, plus an army of tow trucks and their drivers.
In some cities, the stops pay for themselves, with municipalities receiving thousands of dollars in tow payments, administrative-release payments and a cut of proceeds collected by the tow company for storage. In March 2010, Baldwin Park police impounded 61 vehicles while arresting just one person for drunk driving at a checkpoint.
So will lowering the legal level of driving under the influence to 0.05 percent BAC from 0.08 percent, as the NTSB is now advocating, change any of this? And could it happen?
The second question is probably easier to answer than the first. In May, the NTSB issued the call for states to move to a 0.05 percent BAC, along with a number of other recommendations to fight drunk driving, in a 100-page report, Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving.
The agency claims that at BAC levels of 0.05 percent and lower, vigilance, perception, reaction time, tracking and psychomotor skills are all impaired, while drowsiness increases. It also claims alcohol use is associated with reduced seat belt use, increasing injury severity. According to the NTSB, going from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent in Europe cut traffic fatalities 8 percent to 12 percent.
"The NTSB concludes that BAC levels higher than 0.05 are viewed by respected traffic-safety and public-health organizations around the world as posing unacceptable risk for driving, and more than 100 countries have already established BAC limits at or below 0.05," says DUI attorney Myles L. Berman. "I don't believe the U.S. should follow other countries' laws."
As the NTSB itself admits, "lowering the BAC threshold may seem counterintuitive when the majority of alcohol-impaired drivers in fatal crashes have BAC levels well over 0.08." But the agency insists that "reducing the BAC limit could reasonably be expected to have a broad deterrent effect."
Reaching Zero is full of fun acronyms, such as the futuristic DADSS (Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety), HVE (high-visibility enforcement, those OC traffic stops we love so well) and OUI (not the former nudie magazine, but an acronym for operating under the influence of alcohol and drugs). Then there's the Orwellian REDDI (Report Every Drunk Driver Immediately). POLD is a phrase to strike fear into every party-thrower, restaurateur or bar operator—Place of Last Drink. All such actions are justified by yet another acronym, TZD—Toward Zero Deaths.
But it would be a mistake to not take the NTSB's recommendation to lower the BAC seriously. Though the crusade has just begun, the agency has a track record of making such change happen.
In 2004, it helped to implement the re-definition of DUI, moving the threshold of legal intoxication from 0.1 percent to 0.08 percent BAC. Although it's up to each state to make its own law on the subject, all 50 eventually went along, motivated by the agency's system of rewards (special-program funds and incentive grants) and punishment (such as the threat of withholding highway money, which drove the states to a drinking age of 21). And supporting the proposed 0.05 percent BAC limit as part of a renewed "war on drunk driving" seems a no-brainer for any ambitious politician.
Certainly, drunk drivers are not a very popular constituency. But the proposed new BAC level will criminalize much more behavior and many more people. For example, say you're a 100-pound woman; according to the charts, at 0.05 percent BAC, you'd be legally drunk after consuming exactly one drink. Sip a glass of wine at a baby shower, then go to jail.