Dropping DUI standard likely a long process

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The National Transportation Safety Board made its recommendation Tuesday: lower the blood alcohol concentration level for drunken driving nationwide to prevent alcohol-impaired deaths. But when -- or if -- a .05 BAC becomes the new .08 remains to be seen.

"I'm sure it's going to take a while," said Stephen Erni, executive director of the PA DUI Association in Harrisburg, which supports a change already adopted by more than 100 countries, saying it will help reduce fatalities. After all, he said, just lowering the drunken driving standard from .10 to .08 took about two decades.

An NTSB report described the history of changing drunken driving standards. The .10 driving standard for BAC came into effect in 1982, when the federal government passed legislation providing incentives to states to lower their limits.

By 2004, all 50 states had lowered their drunk driving limits to .08, many in response to the federal government's threat of lost highway funds for holdouts. Then, the issue was contentious, the worry that lowering the limit would snare not the highly intoxicated drivers causing accidents, but people having drinks with dinner.

A decade later, the concerns are the same, although somewhat heightened: it's a lot easier to reach a .05 blood alcohol content than to reach a .08.

A 175-pound man reaches a .05 level after two standard drinks (meaning two 12-oz. beers, 5-oz. glasses of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor), according to a chart listed on the University of Pittsburgh's Student Affairs site. A 125-pound woman will have a BAC of .04 after one drink.

Although a person who has a .08 or a .10 BAC will likely be aware of some level of intoxication, that may not be true for lower levels, said David J. Shrager, a criminal defense attorney based in Pittsburgh.

"At .05, you are not going to probably even be aware," he said.

Statistics from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration show that 5 percent of the 32,367 traffic fatalities that occurred in 2011 involved a driver with a BAC of .01 to .07, while 21 percent involved a BAC of .15 or above.

States should respond to the problem of drunk driving by increasing penalties and treatment for high BAC drivers, not by lowering the standard at which a driver is considered drunk, said Amy Christie of the Pennsylvania Tavern Association in Harrisburg, which opposes the proposal.

"If you lower it from .08 to .05, you are basically going after the responsible citizen, who is contemplating if they should have the glass of wine with dinner while they are out at one of my member's places," she said.

With a lower standard, it may be difficult for law enforcement officials to decide whether a person is between a .05 and .08 level based on field sobriety tests, said Josh Goldberg, a criminal defense attorney based Downtown.

For now, Pennsylvania has no immediate plans to change the standard from .08 to 05, though it is reviewing the recommendation, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Corbett said.

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This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe: http://press.post-gazette.com/Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.


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