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Lowering Blood-Alcohol Limit for Drivers to 0.08% Would Save Lives, According to Boston University Study


November 1996

In a study published in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health, the authors concluded that lowering state legal blood-alcohol limits for drivers to 0.08% would save 500 to 600 lives annually (Ralph Hingson, ScD, Timothy Heeren, PhD, and Michael Winter, MPH, "Lowering State Legal Blood Alcohol Limits to 0.08%: The Effect on Fatal Motor Vehicle Crashes," American Journal of Public Health, September 1996, p. 1297).

Conducted by Boston University researchers Ralph Hingson, Timothy Heeren and Michael Winter, the objective of the study was "to determine whether reductions in alcohol-related fatal crashes following adoption of 0.08% legal blood alcohol limits were independent of general regional trends." The authors compared alcohol-related fatal crash records of the first five states (California, Maine, Oregon, Utah and Vermont) to adopt the 0.08% threshold with those of five neighboring states that had the typical 0.10% threshold.

According to the study, "Four of the five 0.08% law states showed a reduction relative to their control states in the proportion of crashes with a fatally injured driver whose alcohol was 0.08% or greater." Pooled estimates of the five 0.08% states showed a 16% and 18% post enactment reduction in the proportion of fatal crashes with a fatally injured driver whose blood alcohol was 0.08% or greater and 0.15% or greater, respectively. The proportion of fatal crashes with any driver whose blood alcohol level was 0.08% or greater and 0.15% or greater showed a 13% reduction and 19% reduction, respectively.

The authors acknowledge that differences in other drunk driving laws, social behavior, education and enforcement efforts in each state complicated their efforts. During the years compared, all five 0.08% law states had license revocation laws for drunk driving, but among the control states, only New Hampshire had this law. The license revocation laws have been associated with a 5% decrease in fatal crashes, and the authors admit that the revocation laws restricted their ability to separate its effect with that of the 0.08% law.

In conclusion, the authors said, "The results of this study suggest that 0.08% laws, particularly in combination with administrative license revocation, reduce the proportion of fatal crashes involving drivers and fatally injured drivers with blood alcohol levels of 0.08% or higher and 0.15% or higher."

After publication of the study, public safety activists called on legislators in the District of Columbia and the 36 states without the 0.08% threshold to lower their legal blood-alcohol limit. The U.S. "is lagging behind most other industrialized nations. . .that have already lowered their limits to 0.08," said Mothers Against Drunk Driving President Katherine Prescott at a news conference on September 20 at the National Press Club in Washington. Prescott said that activists would use the study to pressure state legislatures and Congress to reexamine drunk driving laws (Brian Mooar, "Public Safety Activists Cite New Study In Urging Lower Blood-Alcohol Limit." Washington Post, September 21, 1996, p. B5).

Critics complain that lowering the threshold to 0.08% would be expensive and inefficient. "0.08% doesn't solve what is the real drunk driving problem: In 93% of fatal accidents, the driver was 0.10 and above, and almost half of that percentage is at 0.20 and above," said Jeff Becker, a vice president at the Beer Institute. Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said his group does not oppose lowering the threshold but would rather see resources directed toward enforcing existing drunken driving laws.