In the United States it has been illegal to drive with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of over .08 for quite some time. BAC limits exist in nearly every country and are put in place to protect people from injury or death resulting from those who choose to drink or do drugs and then get behind the wheel of a car. They also exist to punish those who endanger or harm others and to hold them accountable. Finding the legal limit at which people can safely drive is as much an art as it is a science, and many countries have adopted .05 as the limit and have subsequently seen dramatic improvements in the DUI rates. But a new push by the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) to lower the rate in the United States to .05 is being met with serious push back – and from some unlikely sources. Is .05 the magic number? Is lowing the BAC limit to .05 really so strict?
.05 – The Magic Number?
Many countries have rates of .05 or even lower and have seen a much lower rate of alcohol- and drug-related fatalities on the road.
In Queensland, Australia, for instance, .05 is the legal BAC limit. The alcohol-related death rate in Australia is 0.9 per 100,000, and they rank at only 101 out of 192 countries (ranked from highest death rate at 1 to lowest death rate at 192) for alcohol-related deaths. The drink driving penalties in Queensland, in particular, would likely seem strict to the American audience. For instance, if suspected of being under the influence of certain drugs, you can be asked to provide a saliva sample at roadside, and if you refuse you can be detained. In fact, Australia is even considering a new law that would allow officials to take blood from those suspected of driving under the influence in certain situations.
China has an even lower alcohol-related death ranking than Australia does at number 133 and only experiencing a .6/100,000 rate of alcohol-related deaths. However, they also have a BAC legal limit of .08, which some point to as evidence that having a legal limit of .08 is not necessarily a contributing factor to deaths and injuries that result from driving under the influence.
The United States has a comparatively high alcohol-related death rate coming in at number 49 and experiencing a 1.6/100,000 death rate (due solely to alcohol). While there are certainly plenty of other factors that could explain the difference between rates in China and the United States, it is still cause for investigation and inquiry.
It is true that many factors—cultural, societal, geographical, and others—may come into play when looking at the alcohol-related death rates in the world. Nevertheless, in comparing countries with the highest and lowest rates of alcohol-related deaths, it is clear that a lower legal BAC level correlates to a lower the death rate due to alcohol.
Highest Death Rates
Three of the highest alcohol-related death rates in the world belong to El Salvador (25.1/100,000), Guatemala (16.4/100,000), and Honduras (12.9/100,000). El Salvador has a legal BAC limit of .08 to .1, admittedly higher than most countries, while Guatemala’s is .08 and Honduras’ is .07.
Lowest Death Rates
In comparison, three of the lowest alcohol-related death rates in the world belong to Slovakia, Turkey, and Singapore, all countries that have a 0.0/100,000 death rate due to alcohol. In Slovakia, the legal BAC limit while driving is zero. Even a reading of .01 is considered a criminal offense. In Turkey, the legal limit is .05, and in Singapore, interestingly, the limit is .08.
While there are instances of low alcohol-related death rates in countries that have a .08 legal limit, they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. The countries who find their home on the lower end of the death rate spectrum overwhelmingly have legal BAC limits (while driving) of .05 or below. On the other hand, the countries on the higher end of that spectrum often have legal limits of .08 and higher.
Is the New Limit Really So Strict?
Compared to other places in the world, having a legal driving limit of a BAC of .05 would not be such a harsh law. Many countries in the world – over 100 – have adopted this .05 or lower legal limit and found it to be very beneficial. Lives have undoubtedly been saved worldwide by lowering the legal limit, yet people in the United States are pushing back in droves. And it’s not just the common citizens who seem to have a problem with lowering the limit. Even organizations such as AAA and Mothers Against Drunk Driving claim that lowering the rate is going too far.
In the UK, you can be faced with three months’ jail time, up to a 2,500 pound fine (about 4,169 USD), and even a driving ban just for being in charge of a car while drinking or being drunk. If you’re also driving that car, the jail time and fine doubles, and you will be placed on a driving ban of a minimum of one year. With the recent developments regarding roadside blood tests in Australia added to the mix, it seems that simply lowering the legal limit is not that strict.
It begs the question why so many – even organizations like MADD – are against the lower ban. Is .05 the magic number? Is there any correlation? Would it be worth the lowered limit if it saved lives? There are many questions that should be addressed before rushing to decisions, but time will tell whether or not the US does implement this new law, and if so, how it will impact drivers and, most importantly, the alcohol-related driving death rate.