States may consider lowering the standard for drunken driving to the level of a single dry martini after a recommendation Tuesday from the National Transportation Safety Board.
The NTSB wants state legislatures to drop the measure from the current blood alcohol level of .08 to .05, about that caused by a dry martini or two beers in a 160-pound person. The .08 standard might allow the same person to drive legally after two beers or a couple of margaritas, according to a University of Oklahoma calculator.
"The research clearly shows that drivers with a BAC above 0.05 are impaired and at a significantly greater risk of being involved in a crash where someone is killed or injured," said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. "Our goal is to get to zero deaths, because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable. They are crimes. They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will."
The NTSB has no authority to impose its recommendations but provides an influential voice in the setting of safety standards. The board's proposal got an immediate positive response from an organization of state highway safety officials.
"NTSB's action raises the visibility of drunk driving and we will consider their recommendations," said Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association, while underscoring that the group continues to support the .08 level.
At least one West Virginia lawmaker was aware of the recommendations. State Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, heard about the NTSB's plan Tuesday and the recommendation regarding blood alcohol content drew his attention.
West Virginia has seen 3,657 DUI arrests so far this year, according to the state Governors Highway Safety website. There also have been 101 fatal crashes, according to the website.
"It's definitely something to consider," Beach said. "Other countries around the world have had some success with it, some seeing an 18-percent drop (in alcohol-related crashes and fatalities)."
According to the NTSB report, blood alcohol content reductions in several European countries saw traffic fatalities reduced by eight to 12 percent among people 18 to 49. Australia saw traffic fatalities fall by 18 percent in Queensland and eight percent in New South Wales.
Beach, the chairman of the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the recommendation should probably be studied by the state Legislature. He said a lot of the members would want to hear how a change such as that may or may not improve upon alcohol related crashes and fatalities.
Currently, more than 100 countries around the world have blood alcohol content limits set at .05 or lower.
Cpl. Brian Humphreys, a spokesman for the Kanawha Sheriff's Department, would not give an opinion on the recommendation but said deputies would remain vigilant in combating impaired driving.
"We'll enforce the laws of the state of West Virginia whether they change or stay the same," Humphreys said. "We encourage every driver to be safe and know their limitations."
Advocates for the beer and liquor industry reacted negatively to the recommendation.
"While obviously the NTSB doesn't make policy, states take their recommendations very seriously," said Sarah Longwell of the American Beverage Institute, which lobbies for the industry on the state and national level.
She denounced the recommendation as "terrible."
"Between .05 and .08 is not where fatalities are occurring. This is like, people are driving through an intersection at 90 miles an hour and so you drop the speed limit from 35 to 25, it doesn't make any sense," Longwell said. "This is something that is going to have a tremendously negative impact on the hospitality industry while not having a positive impact on road safety."