States should reduce the blood-alcohol level that qualifies as drunken driving to 0.05% to reduce fatal crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended Tuesday.
The risk of a crash at 0.05% is about half as much as at 0.08%, the limit in all states, according to a safety board report released Tuesday.
"This is critical because impaired driving remains one of the biggest killers in the United States," said Deborah Hersman, the NTSB chairman. "To make a bold difference will require bold action. But it can be done."
But the board makes only recommendations to states and the federal government, and can't make laws or regulations.
The Governors Highway Safety Association supports the current alcohol threshold, while commending the board for a comprehensive strategy to address drunken driving. The group favors ignition locks for first-time offenders.
"When the limit was .10, it was very difficult to get it lowered to .08," said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the governors group. "We don't expect any state to go to .05."
The advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving welcomed the board's recommendation, but rather than push for a lower blood-alcohol content level, the group is fighting to eliminate drunken-driving entirely. MADD is pushing for better technology to prevent convicted drunken drivers from operating a vehicle after drinking and to make law enforcement more visible.
"As a mother whose child was killed by a drunk driver, the most important thing to me is preventing as many families as possible from suffering similar tragedies," said MADD National President Jan Withers. "MADD is focused on eliminating this completely preventable tragedy from our roadways."
The American Beverage Institute, a trade group representing 8,000 restaurants, blasted the report for focusing on moderate drinkers rather than more dangerous drunken drivers.
The average woman reaches 0.05% blood-alcohol content after one drink, according to the institute. But more than 70% of drunken-driving fatalities are caused by drivers with at least 0.15%, representing six or seven drinks, it said.
"This recommendation is ludicrous," said Sarah Longwell, the institute's managing director. "Further restricting the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to stop hard-core drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel."
• Administratively suspending a driver's license immediately when a driver is arrested for being drunk.
• Suggesting states require steering locks on vehicles driven by convicted drunken drivers that would test the driver's breath before returning to the road. The group also recommended incentives through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to encourage states to adopt the locks.
• Creating special courts to handle drunken-driving cases.
• Documenting the last place drunken drivers had a drink before their crashes.
More than 100 countries set drunken-driving levels at 0.05%, leaving the U.S. as one of few developed countries with a higher level, according to board staffers.
The board's recommendation follows an effort in the European Union, which set a goal of cutting alcohol-related fatalities in half by 2010 and succeeded. Europe is now trying to cut the crashes in half again over the next decade.
The NTSB meeting came on the 25th anniversary of a fiery crash in Carrollton, Ky., that killed 25 people and injured 34 others when a pickup driven by a drunken driver hit a school bus returning from a church trip to an amusement park.
In 1982, the safety board previously recommended that states reduce drunken-driving limit from 0.10% to 0.08%. Utah became the first state to lower its limit in 1983, but all states hadn't followed suit until 2004.
In 1982, about half of all highway deaths involved alcohol-impaired driving and killed 21,113 people. The number of deaths has been cut in half since then, but about 10,000 deaths a year still represent about one-third of traffic fatalities. The numbers have held steady since 1995.
"We have made progress since that deadly night in Kentucky, but not nearly enough," Hersman said.