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:
What 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.
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.