Proposal to lower DUI limit is facing a long road

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The National Transportation Safety Board made its recommendation last week: Lower the blood alcohol concentration level for drunken driving nationwide. But when -- or if -- a 0.05 BAC becomes the new 0.08 remains to be seen.

"I'm sure it's going to take awhile," said Stephen Erni, executive director of the PA DUI Association in Harrisburg, which supports the change.

After all, he said, just lowering the drunken driving standard from 0.10 to 0.08 took about two decades.

The NTSB, in a report it released with its recommendations, described the history of changing drunken driving standards. The 0.10 driving standard for blood alcohol content, which measures the mass of alcohol per volume of blood, came into effect alongside the rise of advocacy groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving. In 1982, the federal government passed legislation providing incentives to states that set 0.10 as the legal limit.

By 2004, all 50 states had lowered their drunk driving limits to 0.08, many in response to the federal government's announcement that states that did not do so would begin losing federal highway funds. Pennsylvania, which passed its 0.08 legislation in the fall of 2003, was among the last states to make the change.

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 their dinner.

A decade later, the concerns are the same, although somewhat heightened: It's a lot easier to reach a 0.05 blood alcohol content than to reach a 0.08.

A 175-pound man reaches 0.05 after he has two standard drinks (meaning two 12-ounce beers, two 5-ounce 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 reaches 0.04 after one drink. And a 100-pound woman, after just one drink, will have a 0.05.

A person who has a 0.08 or a 0.10 BAC will likely be aware of some level of intoxication, said David J. Shrager, a defense attorney based in Pittsburgh who has worked DUI cases for 15 years.

"At 0.05, you are not going to probably even be aware," he said.

The transportation board report cited studies showing driver impairment in areas including perception, vigilance and reaction time by the time a person reaches a 0.05, with drivers at that 1.38 times more likely to be involved in a crash than sober drivers and 2.69 times more likely at a level of .08.

But Mr. Shrager, who predicted the proposed change could "create an abundance of new DUI charges," said most of the serious alcohol-involved accidents occur when a driver has a blood alcohol content at the higher end of the spectrum.

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 blood level of 0.01 to 0.07 percent alcohol, while 21 percent involved a level of 0.15 or above.

States should respond to the problem of drunken driving by increasing penalties and treatment for highly intoxicated drivers, not by lowering the standard for drunk driving, said Amy Christie of the Pennsylvania Tavern Association in Harrisburg, which opposes the proposal.

"If you lower it from 0.08 to 0.05, 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 members' places," she said.

With a lower standard, it may be difficult for law enforcement officials to make a decision about whether a person is between a 0.05 and 0.08 level based on field sobriety tests, said Josh Goldberg, a criminal defense attorney based Downtown.

For now, Pennsylvania is reviewing the recommendation but has no plans to change the standard from 0.08 to 0.05, said Kelli Roberts, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Corbett.

Mr. Erni, the PA DUI Association chief, anticipates any discussion about changing DUI limits will be a long one. More than 100 countries have already adopted 0.05 as a limit, he said, and he thinks the United States should as well, as a way to decrease the number of deaths due to alcohol impairment.

Driving is legal, and so is drinking, if a person is over 21. It's the mixing of the two activities that can lead to serious consequences, he said.

"We need to change our society's attitudes about driving after consuming alcoholic beverages," he said.

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Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.


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