All 50 states and the District of Columbia have legal intoxication standards that are defined by a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) level. In every state and DC that standard for DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) is at least 0.08%. This means that a driver operating a motor vehicle with a BAC of 0.08% or more can face a DWI charge.  However, a recent report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommends lowering the BAC threshold for DWI to 0.05%.  Now, a mayoral candidate in DC is renewing a push to lower the DWI limit there. DC would be the first jurisdiction in the country to lower its intoxication definition from a BAC of 0.08% to a BAC of 0.05%.

The NTSB report was published in 2013 as a part of that agency’s continued push to lower drunk driving incidents nationwide. Though the NTSB cannot create transportation regulations or laws, its recommendations are widely respected as credible. Federal and state legislatures often look to the agency’s reports and recommendations when creating or amending DWI laws.  Because of the high number of alcohol-related crashes every year, the NTSB believes that lowering the standard to 0.05% will prevent such crashed by changing the way a potentially intoxicated driver behaves.

Basically, lowering the DWI standard could act as a deterrent for drivers by increasing the chance they could be charged with DWI. The report also cites scientific studies showing that drivers with even a 0.01% BAC level have impaired motor skills that could result in an auto accident.  The NTSB and proponents of this change believe that lowering the intoxication standard would decrease drunk driving casualties, much as it did when the standard was lowered over the years from 0.15% to 0.10% and eventually to its current level of 0.08%. In May 2014, Democratic mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser introduced a bill to the DC City Council to lower the DWI standard to 0.05%.

If this bill passes, DC would be the first jurisdiction in the country to take up the NTSB’s recommendation. Bowser is strongly advocating for the law change, stating “the [D]istrict can lead on this issue.” Bowser and other supporters in DC hope to start a change that would gain momentum across the country. Despite the NTSB’s public policy influence and a reemergence of this issue in DC, there are many critics of the proposed change. One such critic, the American Beverage Institute, challenges the report’s recommendation for a lowered intoxication standard. The basis for the criticism is that many factors influence a person’s BAC. Weight, age, and consumption of cough syrup are all factors that can affect someone’s blood alcohol concentration.

Moreover, the amount of alcohol it takes to affect someone’s motor skills differs from person to person. In fact, these same criticisms are echoed in criticisms for breath tests that measure BAC. Studies have shown that breath tests, such as breathalyzers, are often inaccurate because they cannot take into account extrinsic factors like age or weight when measuring a driver’s BAC. Regarding its recommendation, an NTSB official stated, “I think .05 is going to come. How long it takes to get there, we don’t know. But it will happen.”

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