NTSB pushes for lower blood alcohol limit

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The National Transportation Safety Board wants states to make big changes to greatly reduce the number of lives lost in drunk driving crashes.

NTSB staff announced its proposals Tuesday on the 25th anniversary of the deadliest alcohol-related crash in American history. On this day in 1988, a drunk driver drove the wrong way on Highway 71 in Carrollton, Kentucky, hit a school bus and killed 24 children and three adults. Thirty-four others were hurt.

In 1982, nearly half of highway deaths were alcohol related. That number was cut to one third in 1995 and it has stayed there ever since.

Now, NTSB chairman Debbie Hersman says it's time for bold changes to save lives.

The NTSB says if all 50 states changed the blood alcohol limit to .05, 1,000 lives could be saved each year.

The board is also suggesting installing ignition interlocks for all drunk driving offenders.

"Our goal is to get to zero deaths because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable. No one should ever have to experience that knock on the door and receive the notification that far too many families have received. Alcohol-impaired crashes are not accidents, they are crimes. They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will," said Debbie Hersman, NTSB chairman.

Bar owners and patrons were not short on opinions about the proposal Tuesday afternoon.

"What would be nice would be some kind of breathalyzer in the bars," said Ivan Baird, who was making a stop in Broad Ripple.

The NTSB does want alcohol sensors in future new cars, but says it's time for .05 now. Since Europe adopted that standard, DUI deaths fell 50 percent.

"There is impairment," said Marie McGregor Smith of the .05 blood-alcohol level. "There is absolutely impairment there. Your reaction times seem to be the main thing that is affected."

McGregor Smith runs Advocates Against Impaired Driving. Her mother was killed by an impaired driver and Marie was twice injured by one. She says .05 "to save a life, it's worth trying to do. I think there are going to be a lot of opponents."

"I am concerned about it," said bar owner Dan Murphy.

National food and beverage groups are concerned too.

At Murphy's South Meridian Street bar, Lucky's Tap, you won't find ashtrays on the bar, anymore thanks to the citywide smoking ban. Bartenders fear with a lower legal limit, some customers may not order a second or third beer.

"The smoking already killed us. Now, if they drop the limit, people aren't going to spend money for a cab to go out and drink. They're gonna drink at home," said Sam, a bartender at Lucky's.

Murphy sees both sides.

"You shouldn't drink and drive, but then it's Big Brother. You don't know. It's tough," he said.

In Broad Ripple, some have suspicions about the motive behind dropping the blood-alcohol limit.

"Everybody drinks and drives. Everybody's gonna walk out of here drinking and driving. So is it about revenue? Or is it about safety?" Shewmaker asked.

Shewmaker and Toni Brown think it's about the government collecting more in fines.

But for Jason Ward, "Those people who were on the fence about drinking and driving might think a little more about it."

Tim Collins agrees.

"My father was killed by a drunk driver in 1989," he said. "So anything they can do to make the law stricter, I'm definitely very much for it."

The NTSB is urging all states to adopt the stricter limit, but that may not happen anytime soon. It took 21 years for all 50 states to adopt the current .08 limit from the previous .10.

See the NTSB's proposals for eliminating impaired driving.

Statistics from the NTSB:

"More people die on the highways than in any other mode of transportation. In fact, over 90 percent of all transportation-related deaths occur on highways.

The substance-impaired driver greatly contributes to this average. For example, in 2010, more than 10,000 deaths (30 percent of all highway deaths) involved an alcohol-impaired driver. Over the last decade, 130,000 people have died in crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver—20,000 more than the number of seats at the University of Michigan football stadium! According to the 2011 Traffic Safety Culture Index of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, over 14 percent of drivers admit to driving when they thought they were close to or over the legal limit.

The statistics for drugged driving are no less concerning. According to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, roughly 10.5 million people age 12 and above admitted to driving while impaired by illicit drugs. And among drivers fatally injured in 2009 who were tested for drugs and for whom results were known, one-third tested positive. From 2005-2009, the proportion of fatally injured drivers who tested positive for illicit drugs rose from 13 to 18 percent. The battle against substance-impaired driving is far from over."