The Impact of Proposed Lower Blood Alcohol Content Levels on Wine Lovers

Yesterday the National Transportation Safety Board recommended lowering the legal blood alcohol level for drivers from .08 to .05, which would put the U.S. (or any states that adopted the new, lower level) in line with the standard for much of the rest of the world. The question is what impact would this change have on wine drinkers? What impact would it have on the level of fatalities caused by drunk drivers?

HOW MUCH COULD YOU DRINK?Look at any of the many charts that describe how many drinks one can consume before reaching various levels of alcohol in your blood and you quickly find the following:

bacWhat you discover about this chart (for men) is that under the new .05% BAC guidelines a man who weighs between 180 and 200 pounds could consume two drinks in an hour and still, at .04% BAC, be under the .05 limit. However, in the case of this chart and nearly every other BAC chart you consult you’ll note that a “drink” of wine is defined as five ounces of 12% alcohol by volume wine. I have to ask, when was the last time you drank a wine that came in at 12% alcohol or less? They are out there, but you have to look for them these days. Rather, you are much more likely to be holding a wine that is 14% or more alcohol if you randomly choose a wine off the retailer’s shelf. 14% alcohol wine is 17% more alcohol than 12% alcohol wine. Put another way, it’s very likely that in today’s wine world and under the .05 BAC proposal, a good-sized man would be legally impaired after 2 drinks in an hour. The average woman would get there with about 1 drink.

Under current law where legally impaired means a .08 BAC, the same man can have  4 drinks in an hour. A woman between 2 and 3 drinks before legal impairment.

THE SOCIAL IMPACT OF LOWERING THE LEGAL BAC
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2009 there were 33,000 traffic fatalities. Of those, 10.839 fatalities were alcohol related or due to alcohol impairment. A good question is this: How man of those 10,839 deaths were a result of the driver having a blood alcohol content of between .05 and .07, the lower amounts that would be considered legally impaired under the new recommendation, but were not considered legally impaired currently? The answer is roughly 975 deaths.

According to reports, the National Transportation Safety Board expects between 500 and 800 lives would be saved annually if the lower standard is adopted. It’s not clear how they came up with that number, but let’s take them at their word.

THE QUESTION
So, then, then the question seems obvious to me. From a the perspective of a wine lover who is also concerned with the well-being of their fellow citizens, is the reduction in the amount of wine they could consume while away from home in order to stay within the legal BAC level worth the 500 to 800 lives that will be saved annually?

At this point the American Beverage Institute and the National Restaurant Association (both representing restaurants and bars) oppose the lowered BAC level. Both organizations point out that the lower BAC levels will hurt restaurants and bars simply because it will deter drinking away from home. Additionally, they argue that the real focus should not be on those individuals whose level of intoxication rarely leads to traffic accidents or fatalities, but rather on those repeat offenders and heavy drinkers responsible for most of the alcohol related traffic accidents and fatalities.

I’ve not made up my mind. More than anything, what I would like to hear is how the National Transportation Safety Board makes the case that a legal limit of .05 is justified, but a legal limit of .03 is not justified. In other words, I’ve not been able to determine if the NTSB would or would not favor a 0.00 legal BAC level.

This change has not come. And frankly without significant motivation provided by the federal government, the change is unlikely to come soon to any state. However, it may eventually come. I means that wine lovers will likely have to cut back on how much and how they drink wine when away from home. It also means that when wine tastings in Wine Country, new considerations come into play. On this later score, clearly American wineries will have something to say on the matter.

For now, I see this as an increasingly important public policy and moral issue wrapped in to one for wine lovers.


10 Responses

  1. Julie Brosterman - May 15, 2013

    The truth of the matter is that abusers of alcohol have made the NTSB look to over reach in this situation.

    I, for one, would rather see that the people who have had DUI incidents (which is certainly the precursor in most cases to causing a death on the road) clearly market on your drivers license with an annual sticker which the server can ask to see if they think that the consumer is running fast on the alcohol consumption.

    Where the real issue appears to be is when one is serving guests at their home for dinner or a party. In an environment where you’re not paying for drinks, the guest tends to drink more.

    Will the host be responsible too if the guest leaves the party at a higher BAC level?

    Even one death from alcohol related incidents is too much but the number of these situations has declined since 2009 so hopefully people are getting the message and are being more mindful of their intake.

    Given that the biggest offenders are ages 21-24 and repeat DUI offenders it does seem unreasonable to change the law to .05.

  2. Charlie Olken - May 15, 2013

    Let’s accept for the purposes of discussion that there were 975 traffic deaths in a year in the driver had a BAC of 0.5 to 0.7. Somehow the NTSB estimates that half to 90% of those deaths had alcohol as the causative difference. Cut down from 0.8 BAC and those deaths go away.

    What is missing here is an examination of the traffic death rate for people below 0.5 for similar miles driven and also an assessment as to why th 50-90% of traffic deaths would be eliminated at <0.5 BAC.

    Their argument has all the hallmarks of MADD and very little of real science.

  3. Robert - May 16, 2013

    For the purposes of tracking alcohol related deaths the NTSB seems to say that any death that occurred where any level of alcohol was present should be directly attributed to alcohol regardless of any other circumstances involved with the accident. For example, if I am texting while driving and have a .07 BAC, even if it was the texting (ie not looking at the road) that was the immediate cause of the accident they will still record it as an alcohol related death and tell you that it could have been avoided (which in this example it could have been, but not by having a lower BAC limit). Also what were the other factors at play, was the driver at a heightened emotional state (ie just had a fight with their significant other)? NTSB will also attribute alcohol to the cause of death in an accident even when the accident was due to a driver who had a BAC of 0 as long as the person they collided with does have alcohol in their system.

    The other note is the number of alcohol related traffic fatalities has declined by over half since 1989 (approx 22K fatalities) while the US population have increased by more than 20% over that time (246million in 89 and around 312 million today) so the number of deaths per population has decreased even more as a percentage than the raw number of decrease would suggest.

    I am not saying that it is OK to get out there after drinking and kill someone, but lets live in the real world about it. Living is inherently unsafe, no matter what we do we will never achieve 0 fatalities from drinking. Turning normal people into the class of criminal that we have made drunk drivers does not serve any interests other than raising the funds states generate from DUI’s (not an inconsiderable amount). The carnage we will wreck on ourselves with this criminalization will not be insignificant. If we continue to live by the idea that saving even one life is worth whatever we have to do to make it happen regardless of what the issue is, is allowed to prevail in our common thought we will reach a point that the only sane thing we can do is check everyone into a cell where they can never be hurt, injured or killed, and outlaw all human interaction amongst themselves or the world around them

  4. The Impact of Proposed Lower Blood Alcohol Content Levels on Wine Lovers - Vinigator.com - May 17, 2013

    […] Yesterday the National Transportation Safety Board recommended lowering the legal blood alcohol level for drivers from .08 to .05, which would put the U.S. (or any states that adopted the new, lower level) in line with the standard for much of the rest of the world. The question is (Read more…) […]

  5. .05 vs. .08? « Artisan Family of Wines - May 20, 2013

    […] Wark took a fairly close look at this issue (see http://fermentationwineblog.com/2013/05/the-impact-of-lower-blood-alcohol-content-levels-on-wine-lov…), and pointed out some pretty interesting, and pertinent, […]

  6. Joe Sage - May 22, 2013

    Seems lazy to me, proposing a massive impact on a significant portion of the economy to address an estimated 975 deaths – what about the other 9,864? Education, cultural shifts, and better enforcement of existing laws would be more logical.

  7. ICYMI: weekly wine tweets and treats | grapefriend - June 14, 2013

    […] Thought this was pretty interesting: the legal blood alcohol level is higher in the US than most countries. Just one more reason why I dislike high-alcohol wines and am psyched that I live in NYC.   […]

  8. Bob Henry - September 1, 2013

    TOM,

    A TWO-PART “COMMENT.”

    PART TWO ON ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION SCREENING . . .

    From The Wall Street Journal “Main News” Section
    (August 12-13, 2006, Page A1ff):

    “A Test for Alcohol — And Its Flaws”

    [See accompanying exhibit]

    [Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB115534928148134109.html

    By Kevin Helliker
    Staff Reporter

    . . .

    Throughout history, few questions have prompted more lies than, “Have you been drinking?” For decades, the truth has been obtainable through urine tests and breathalyzers. But since alcohol dissipates from the system in a matter of hours, that truth always has been as fleeting as drunkenness itself. Whether a person is drunk this moment can be documented. But how about last weekend?

    Now comes a test that can answer that question. Known as EtG . . . It screens for ethyl glucuronide, or EtG, a byproduct of the metabolization of alcohol, which remains in the system for about 80 hours. . . .

    Little advertised, though, is that EtG can detect alcohol even in people who didn’t drink. Any trace of alcohol may register, even that ingested or inhaled through food, medicine, personal-care products or hand sanitizer.

    The test “can’t distinguish between beer and Purell” hand sanitizer, says H. Westley Clark, director of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s center for substance-abuse treatment. . . .

    . . . critics worry that growing acceptance of the EtG test is punishing those who haven’t relapsed or aren’t problem drinkers. . . .

    Such critics have gained an unusual ally: the physician who pioneered EtG testing in America. “Use of this screen has gotten ahead of the science,” says Gregory Skipper, an Alabama addiction specialist and recovering addict. . . .

    ~~ BOB

  9. Lower the Drinking Age—Because Alcohol is Good! - Fermentation - April 24, 2014

    […] lowering the drinking age in the U.S. back to 18. It occasionally comes up. Instead we tend to hear proposals along the lines of lowering the Blood Alcohol limit for drunk driving. I’ve long been a proponent of lowering the drinking age back to 18, if only because that […]

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