Reaction to drunken driving limits mixed

Herald Staff Writer

Local police officials are lukewarm about the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation to lower the drunken-driving limit from .08 to .05 percent blood alcohol content. Lowering the threshold to .05 percent might be extreme, some of them said.

Indiana has had the .08 percent threshold since 2001, when it was lowered from .10 percent. The .08 percent limit has been in effect in all 50 states since 2004.

A lower threshold would reduce drinking and driving and its sometimes fatal consequences, the board said in its recommendation released Tuesday. In the United States in 2011, impaired driving crashes resulted in 9,878 fatalities, representing 31 percent of all highway fatalities, according to the board. This is a 53 percent reduction from the 21,113 impaired driving fatalities in 1982, when many states’ thresholds were .10 percent or higher.

“I think .10 is a little bit high, and I think .08 is right where it should be,” Huntingburg Police Chief Arthur Parks said. “To me, .08 is the right number. I don’t think it needs to go any lower than that.”

Drivers with a blood alcohol content of .05 percent are 38 percent more likely to be in a crash than sober drivers, according to the board. At .08 percent, drivers are 169 percent more likely to be in a crash. The limit of .05 percent is the standard in most industrialized countries.

Dubois County Sheriff Donny Lampert said he is in favor of road safety but questioned whether the recommendation goes too far.

“Anytime we can make the roads safer with any kind of laws, it’s a plus,” he said. “The question is: Is this a type of law where we’re going to go a little bit extreme?”

Lampert said the legislatures could be more efficient by evaluating existing laws rather than making new ones. He added that he prefers that people not drive at all if they have consumed alcohol.

Nathan Schmitt, assistant police chief in Jasper, said that people’s reflexes slow between .05 and .08 percent blood alcohol content.

“It’s that split second that could cause them to get in an accident or hit someone,” he said.

State lawmakers will have to determine whether to lower the limit, and local police will adjust, he said. He questioned whether lowering the .08 limit is necessary.

“Do I think it’s necessary? I don’t know,” he said.

Ferdinand police declined to comment on the proposal until they have had a chance to discuss it. Representatives of the Dubois County Substance Abuse Council did the same.

In Dubois County, there has been at least one fatal accident involving alcohol every year since 2006. Since 2001, when the .08 percent limit was introduced in Indiana, 20 alcohol-related driving fatalities have occurred in the county, out of a total of 66 driving fatalities. Impaired driving fatalities constitute about 30 percent of the total, on par with the national average.

In 2011, 203 drivers were booked into the Dubois County Security Center on charges of operating while intoxicated; a large number of these cases involved alcohol. (The charge also can apply to drivers impaired by illegal or prescription drugs, and to drivers who refused to take a breath test.) In 2012, 220 drivers were booked into the security center on this charge. As of Thursday afternoon, 98 had been booked into the security center this year.

In 2011, alcohol-impaired drivers represented 1.7 percent of all drivers in Indiana crashes, but they were involved in 20 percent of fatal crashes. Of Indiana’s 749 driving fatalities in 2011, 140 involved a driver with a blood alcohol content of .08 percent or higher.

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