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Lowering DWI limit could save lives, researcher says

Tom Nochajski

Thomas Nochajski says the European nations and Australia have had a .05 blood-alcohol standard for a number of years. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published May 16, 2013

“We saw a drop in fatalities after the BAC level was lowered from .10 to .08, and may see a similar decrease if it is lowered to .05.”
Thomas Nochajski, Research Professor
School of Social Work

The federal proposal to lower the DWI blood-alcohol limit would make the standard similar to European nations and Australia, and could save lives, says a School of Social Work research professor who has studied the effects of impaired driving for more than 25 years.

“The move to a .05 blood-alcohol level (from 0.8) is not a new idea,” says Thomas H. Nochajski, whose research includes preventing alcohol and drug problems for families and children. “The European nations and Australia have had .05 as the legal limit for a number of years. The issue is whether lowering the BAC level will result in saving lives.”

Nochajski says a direct effect on saving lives could very well occur.

“We saw a drop in fatalities after the BAC level was lowered from .10 to .08, and may see a similar decrease if it is lowered to .05,” he says.

There were about 900 fatal crashes in 2011 where one of the drivers had a BAC between .05 and .07, according to Nochajski.

“So crashes do occur at this BAC level,” he says. “In fact, the risk for being involved in a fatal crash for individuals with a BAC between .05 and .0799 ranges from a high of almost 10 times that of a driver with a BAC level of 0.00 for males ages 16 to 20, to a low of almost four times for males and females over the age of 35.”

Research into impaired driving shows that certain functions important for good driving begin to be affected after a single drink, Nochajski notes. 

“We know that vision, decision-making, information processing, distance judgment, distraction and reactions are all influenced by low levels of alcohol,” he says. “So the move to the .05 level is not out of line with the research findings.”

Nochajski also says that for the average male, it takes approximately three drinks in one hour to reach the .05 level, and around two drinks for a female. 

“So we are not talking about abstinence,” he says. “I also think that decisions about driving after drinking should be made before one starts drinking. Use of taxis and designated drivers can allow for a comfortable night out. However, once the drinking has started, relying on your ability to make good decisions is not a good idea, regardless of whether we move to .05 or not.”