On fatal crash anniversary, feds urge states to get tougher on drunken driving

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 14, 2013 

— The National Transportation Safety Board recommended Tuesday that states lower their threshold for drunken driving with the goal of reducing alcohol-related fatal crashes, which have held steady for much of the past 15 years.

The board voted 5-0 to encourage states to change the minimum blood alcohol concentration from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent or less. Since Utah became the first state to adopt the 0.08 standard 30 years ago, the number of Americans killed in alcohol-related crashes has fallen by nearly half, but nearly 10,000 still die every year.

NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said that while the United States prides itself on transportation safety, it lags behind its peers in cutting drunken driving fatalities. She noted that European Union countries had slightly exceeded their goal of cutting such deaths in half.

“Impaired driving remains one of the biggest killers in the United States,” Hersman said. “Other nations are taking steps toward saving lives.”

The unanimous vote came exactly 25 years after the nation’s worst alcohol-related crash, near Carrollton, Ky. On May 14, 1988, a church group was returning home from a trip to the Kings Island amusement park near Cincinnati when a pickup going the wrong way on Interstate 71 crashed into the group’s bus. It ruptured the fuel tank and ignited a fire that quickly engulfed the bus. Twenty-four children and three adults were killed.

The pickup driver, Larry Mahoney, had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.24, more than twice the legal limit in Kentucky at the time. A jury convicted Mahoney of manslaughter and he served nearly 11 years in prison.

“We have made progress since that deadly night in Kentucky,” Hersman said. “But it’s not nearly enough. “Today, our thoughts are with those families.”

NTSB has no enforcement power over the states, so the change would have to come from state legislatures and governors. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Tuesday that it would help states that decide to implement the recommendation and encouraged them to take other steps that would prevent impaired drivers from getting behind the wheel.

“NHTSA continues to work with states and encourages them to take a multi-faceted approach to reducing drunk driving that includes the use of ignition interlocks, education and awareness programs, and enforcement of state drunk driving laws,” the agency said in a statement.

As recently as 2000, 31 states had a limit of 0.10, but Congress passed a law that year that allowed the Department of Transportation to withhold highway funding from states that didn’t fall in line. Delaware was the last to comply, in 2004.

According to NTSB numbers, the percentage of alcohol-related vehicle fatalities has changed little since the late 1990s, hovering around 30 percent.

Not everyone would support the lower limit. Sarah Longwell, managing director of the National Beverage Institute, a restaurant industry group, called the NTSB recommendation “ludicrous.” She and other opponents of the 0.05 limit said that law enforcement resources were better spent on the worst offenders instead of what she called moderate drinkers.

“Further restricting the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to stop hardcore drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel,” she said in a statement.

Her group cites federal statistics that more than 70 percent of drunken driving fatalities involve drivers with a blood alcohol level of 0.15 percent or more, and that the average level of a driver involved in a fatal crash is 0.16.

Even one of the leading advocacy organizations that pushed for the 0.08 limit stopped short of endorsing the NTSB recommendation. Mothers Against Drunk Driving said in a statement that it appreciated the NTSB’s work but said it would focus its efforts on law enforcement tools that it projects would save thousands of lives a year.

“Above all, MADD strongly recommends that the safest course of action is to not drink and drive,” it said.

Email: curtis.tate@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @tatecurtis

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