Lowering Drunk Driving Level to .05 BAC Saves Lives

British Columbia DUI Fatalities Dropped 40%

Drunk Driving Crash
DUI Laws Can Affect Drivers' Choices. © Getty Images

Canadian research into the effects of changing drunk driving laws to penalize drivers at the .05 blood-alcohol concentration level could lead other lawmakers to consider adopting this legislation. Alcohol-related fatal vehicle crashes dropped 40% after British Columbia began penalties for drivers with .05 BACs.

Not only did fatalities decrease, but researchers found dropping the legal standard for intoxication from .08 BAC to .05 BAC also reduced auto crashes and ambulance calls.

Hospital admissions resulting from auto crashes also declined significantly.

According to University of British Columbia research, automobile crashes decline 21%, crash-related hospital admissions fell 8% and auto crash-related ambulance calls dropped 7.2%

Fewer Crashes, Ambulance Calls, and Admissions

That translates into 84% fewer auto crashes, 308 fewer hospital admissions and 2,553 fewer ambulance calls each year.

"Our findings add to the growing evidence that the new laws, although controversial to some, were associated with marked improvements in road safety," said lead author Jeffrey Brubacher "We hope that other jurisdictions will follow B.C.'s lead in implementing similar laws designed to deter dangerous driving."

Dr. Brubacher is an associate professor of Emergency Medicine at UBC, researcher with Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute and a VCH Emergency Department physician.

Tough Penalties for First Offenders

The stronger drunk driving laws were passed in British Columbia in 2010. In the following year, a previous Brubacher study found a 40% decrease in alcohol-related fatal crashes and a 23% decrease in alcohol-related injury collisions.

Under the changes implemented in 2010, first-time offenders with a blood-alcohol content of .05 to .08 had their driver's license suspended for three days and fined $600.

They could also have their vehicle impounded for three days at the discretion of the arresting officer.

The new law also increased penalties for drivers with BACs higher than .08, but for the first time set penalties at the lower .05 level.

All 50 States Use .08 Limit

In the United States, all 50 states set the level for driving under the influence at .08, but many European countries have set the level at .05.

There are many studies that show that actual impairment - the ability to drive safely - takes place long before a drinker reaches the .08 level.

Impairment Begins Early

Studies have found that even at the .02 blood-alcohol content level drivers can experience a decline in visual functions, causing them not to be able to track a moving object as well. They also exhibit a decline in the ability to perform two tasks at the same time.

At the .05 level, impairment is significantly more noticeable. Drivers begin to loose small-muscle control, are not as able to focus their eyes as quickly, have impaired judgment, less alertness, and less inhibition.

This means that at the .05 level drivers would have reduced coordination, a further decline in the ability to track moving objects, more difficulty steering the vehicle, and a significant reduction in emergency reaction time.

Reductions in Alberta Also

In his latest study, Brubacher and his associates point out that during the same period there was no decline in alcohol-related crashes in Washington state or Saskatchewan, where drunk driving laws remained the same.

However, it Alberta - where the change in B.C. laws was covered in the media and debated by lawmakers - there was a decline in fatal crashes, due to what the authors called a "spillover" effect. Alberta lawmakers eventually adopted DUI laws similar to British Columbia's.

Source: Brubacher, JR, et al. "Reduction in Fatalities, Ambulance Calls, and Hospital Admissions for Road Trauma After Implementation of New Traffic Laws." American Journal of Public Health 14 August 2014.

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