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Is The Current Legal Blood Alcohol Limit Too High?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Ten-thousand Americans die in crashes blamed on alcohol each year.  That's why a panel of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine just made a series of recommendations to stem that tide. They include ideas like higher alcohol taxes, better enforcement on underage drinking and dropping the legal blood alcohol limit from 0.08 to 0.05.

So, is the current legal limit too high? Good Question.

Every state, but Utah, has a 0.08 threshold. (Utah's 0.05 law goes into effect December 2018.) That's a change from just two decades ago, when the threshold for many states was .10. Minnesota was the last to make the switch to 0.08 in 2005.

"If you have a couple of drinks back to back in short order, you will raise your blood alcohol level to 0.08," says HCMC Emergency Physician Dr. David Plummer. "It depends on the time between them and it depends on how rapidly it's absorbed."

How quickly people reaches a certain blood alcohol content also depends on size, weight, sex and how much they've eaten.

According to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, a 140-pound woman would reach a 0.10 BAC after three drinks and a 0.06 after two. A 180-pound man would reach a 0.06 after three drinks and a 0.08 after four.

Dr. Plummer says just one drink for a woman could cause a BAC of 0.05.

"They have to be drinking it in relatively short order, not spread out over hours, and that may not last very long," he says. "It can be metabolized quickly."

Research has shown impairment happens at BAC levels of 0.05.

"We've known this for years," says Steve Simon, Emeritus Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota. "Drivers can't respond as quickly to an event."

Alcohol impairs the speed at which information is processed, which slows reaction time. According to Simon, people can make it home safely at 0.05 when they drive the same route and nothing unexpected happens. But, they can't respond quickly to when, for example, a child runs out into the road, a driver in front of them quickly changes lanes or there's a stop sign they didn't anticipate.

"The difference between 0 and 0.05 is real impairment," says Dr. Plummer. "It may not be obvious to the person who is just talking to them, socially for example, but it's demonstrable on scientific testing and it's demonstrable on the roadways."

Several European countries have 0.05 thresholds.  According to University of Minnesota alcohol policy researcher Traci Toomey, studies have shown alcohol-related traffic fatalities have dropped in those countries due to the change in the laws.

"They will certainly control for other factors and other laws that might have happened at the same time," she says. "They're looking across a range of different studies, different countries and isolating for that specific effect of that specific law."

Examples of other laws or chance that affected drunken driving fatalities would include seat belt laws and safer cars.

She also points out changing the BAC level to 0.05 could make people think twice about driving after they've  had a few drinks.

"It just changes the norms of when is it OK to get behind the wheel after drinking some alcohol," she says.

Not everyone is supportive of a change in the law. Hospitality and beverage companies have come out strongly against it.

"Traffic laws should target the real drunk drivers on the road, not moderate, responsible drinkers who enjoy a drink with dinner," says Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute in a statement responding to the panel's findings.

According to David Bernstein, Chair of Minnesota's DWI Task Force, the state's Task Force has "loosely" discussed the idea of a 0.05 BAC level, but they didn't intend to bring it before the legislature this year.

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