WASHINGTON — States should lower the definition of drunken driving to a blood-alcohol reading of no more than .05 percent, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended Tuesday, saying the United States is too tolerant of impairment behind the wheel.
The safety board at a hearing in Washington said the U.S. is behind other countries, including most of Europe, in having a threshold for drunken driving of .08 in all 50 U.S. states.
The risk of a crash at a .05 reading is half what it is at .08, the board said.
“It’s frustrating that with the education and advocacy, with laws and enforcement and with the many processes set up to deal with the problem of drinking and driving, that we are still seeing so many lives lost,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said at the hearing.
About one-third of U.S. traffic deaths are related to alcohol, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.
The safety board is an advisory body with no authority to make laws or regulations. It issues recommendations to states and U.S. agencies. Each state sets its own driving laws, including defining drunken driving, though Congress has given past safety-board recommendations teeth by tying their adoption to federal highway funds.
The difference between .08 and .05 is one to two mixed drinks, glasses of wine or 12-ounce beers over three hours, depending on gender and body size. A 180-pound man could consume four drinks in three hours before reaching .05, and a 140-pound woman could have three drinks over the same time period, according to charts prepared by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Education and Wellness.
The number of people killed on U.S. roads rose in 2012 following six consecutive years of declines. Crash fatalities rose 5.3 percent to 34,080 from a year earlier, NHTSA reported May 3 using preliminary numbers.
Lowering the limits for what defines drunken driving drew opposition from an alcoholic-beverage and restaurant industry group, which had spoken out against an earlier NTSB recommendation that states require ignition interlocks for people convicted even once of drunken driving.
The American Beverage Institute argued the U.S. previously decided .08 would be a safe limit for driving, and said lawmakers and regulators would be better off focusing on highly intoxicated drivers and repeat offenders.
“This recommendation is ludicrous,” Sarah Longwell, the group’s managing director, said in an emailed statement. “Moving from .08 to .05 would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior. Further restricting the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to stop hardcore drunken drivers from getting behind the wheel.”
The Washington-based group doesn’t disclose the names of its 8,000 members.
The NTSB also doesn’t have the support of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, which supports developing technology to prevent cars from starting when a driver is intoxicated, requiring ignition interlocks for first-time drunken driving offenders and using sobriety checkpoints to enforce existing laws.
“This is one approach,” J.T. Griffin, senior vice president of public policy for the group, said in an interview. “We feel our approach has the opportunity to save more lives.”
Safety board recommendations have led to changes in driving laws across the U.S. In 1982, it recommended raising states’ drinking ages to 21 and later supported a push to get states to lower the drunken-driving limit from .10 to .08.
Lawmakers first enticed states to make both changes with financial incentives and later, for those that hadn’t done so already, penalties. Utah in 1983 became the first state to lower its limit to .08, with the last states not falling in line until 2004.
The percentage of highway deaths attributed to alcohol impairment fell from 48 percent in 1982 to 31 percent in 2011, according to NTSB data.
The board also recommended that law enforcement increase the use of passive alcohol-sensing devices during traffic stops to detect drunken drivers who might pass field sobriety tests.
The devices cost about $600, according to the NTSB, and can detect alcohol in a person’s breath without requiring blowing into a machine. They’re made by PAS Systems International, based in Fredericksburg, Va.
The NTSB called for increasing administrative seizures of licenses for drivers found to be drunk behind the wheel or who refuse a field sobriety test. Such seizures, already legal in most states, allow law enforcement to take a license in a way that’s easier for a driver to re-obtain it than when it’s suspended through a criminal proceeding.
The safety board has previously recommended accelerating development of technology installed in vehicles that can passively detect alcohol through touch on the steering wheel or through breath inside a vehicle.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, whose members include General Motors and Toyota, is working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to develop the technology, which the NTSB has said should be offered as an option in cars.