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Editorial: Lowering legal blood-alcohol limit won't stop drunken driving

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is considering

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is considering stricter DWI restrictions, including lowering the blood-alcohol limit from .08 to .05. (May 4, 2012) Credit: Angela Gaul

The Memorial Day weekend is the official start of summer fun, but also of increased patrols against drunken driving. Last year, Nassau and Suffolk county police made 71 arrests on charges of driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol from Friday evening to Sunday morning of the same holiday weekend.

So be warned. Drink and host responsibly, and keep an eye on friends and family. Patrols will be out again. And under new state regulations, repeat offenders risk losing their licenses for longer periods -- even permanently.

Campaigns by groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and stricter enforcement of tougher laws by police and the courts have reduced the carnage on the roads. But is there a risk that those who seek even more stringent rules are pushing the limits a bit too far -- and not putting enough emphasis on another emerging danger: texting while driving?

In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a law that withheld federal highway funds from states that didn't lower the blood-alcohol threshold for drunken driving from 0.10 to 0.08 percent. Not surprisingly, all states made the change. Now the advisory National Traffic Safety Board wants to lower that threshold further -- to 0.05.

It's just one of 19 recommendations the NTSB made last week in its Reaching Zero campaign to eliminate all alcohol-impaired driving. Another is mandatory ignition interlocks on all cars, which would require drivers to blow into a breath analyzer every time they start their vehicles.

While we have supported many initiatives to prevent drunken driving, a reduction in the legal level of alcohol to what could be measured after social drinking -- a cocktail or a couple beers, depending on the driver's weight and gender -- could be an overreach. The NTSB estimates it could save another 500 to 800 lives a year nationally, but its evidence is not very persuasive.

And without more convincing evidence, there is a risk that criminalizing social behavior could undermine public support for more effective efforts, such as New York's crackdown on repeat offenders, those heavy drinkers who are responsible for most crashes.

In the past, New Yorkers with as many as seven alcohol- or drug-related driving convictions could, after suspensions of a few years, get their licenses back. But tougher rules implemented last fall require permanent revocation after five or more such convictions, or after three or four convictions and another serious offense. The governor's office reports that 3,164 permanent revocations have been made since the rules went into effect eight months ago.

Putting that type of initiative in place nationwide is a goal of MADD, which will not campaign for the reduction to 0.05. The likelihood of effective enforcement is another reason to pause. NTSB says its review of research shows that a driver with a 0.05 blood-alcohol content loses depth perception and "vigilance," but law enforcement agencies say those might not cause the kind of erratic driving that police notice.

Meanwhile, texting while driving is a growing worry. A study in the journal Pediatrics reported that in a survey of high school students 16 years or older, 45 percent said they had texted while driving in the preceding 30 days. Federal researchers say that in 2011, 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver, including those who were texting. Unfortunately, bans against TWD are even harder to enforce.

So this weekend, besides keeping an eye on those who are drinking a little too much, make sure drivers have both hands on the wheel.