The National Transportation and Safety Board recently recommended lowering the maximum allowed blood alcohol concentration (BAC) for drivers to 0.05 from its current 0.08. Beer and restaurant industry groups called foul. So far official voices of the wine industry have been silent.
For me it's simple: I don't want to be the cause of someone's death if I can help it, and I can minimize that risk if I don't get behind the wheel buzzed. If I am driving, I simply won't take that extra drink. That's my choice. The sticky issue is whether the law should be tightened.
Our friends in Europe and Australia have been living with a 0.05 BAC limit for driving, lowered from 0.08 some years ago. I asked some of my Australian friends for their thoughts.
"The evidence in support of these laws is overwhelming," said Huon Hooke, the respected Sydney wine critic. "It is rare among my circle to drive when going out for dinner in either a private home or restaurant. I only break this rule when I know I am not going to be tempted to drink more than a glass or two for the evening."
"It was a big deal when introduced to Australia, but the country has adjusted," added wine critic Jeremy Oliver, who lives in Melbourne. "Australians have certainly not stopped having fun. People just take taxis or get designated drivers sorted prior to the event. And our restaurant scene has never been more diverse or exciting."
Good wine-by-the-glass programs help, said Stuart Bourne, currently winemaker at Chateau Tanunda in Barossa Valley. "If a person can only have two glasses of wine when going out for dinner in order to be safe, we will spend a bit more on each glass," he said. "Maybe it is better to drink higher quality wine and less of it. You can also try two or three different wines with different dishes. This also keeps up the dollars-per-head spent, which restaurants are happy with."
Bourne added that companies have sprung up to address the issue of what to do if you have imbibed too much and drove there on your own. "Dial-a-Driver picks you up with two people in one car. Then one of them drives your car home for you and the other follows in the other car," he said.
Kerri Thompson, proprietor and winemaker of KT and the Falcon wines in Clare Valley, said that in rural areas, many pubs offer a pickup-dropoff service for groups. "There is no doubt, it has affected local business, but I do believe that there has been a reduction in accidents," she said, "which is clearly a positive thing."
The argument against lowering the BAC is that it targets the wrong part of the problem, that drunk driving has already declined significantly in the U.S. over the years. And besides, enforcement should be aimed at the heavy drinkers who cause more fatal accidents. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which was instrumental in getting the limit lowered to 0.08 here, does not endorse a lower limit, arguing that it would save more lives to enforce existing laws and require ignition interlocks for DUI offenders.
These items are also part of the NTSB's recommendations, along with educational programs to get out facts about impaired driving of all kinds, not just those that are alcohol-related. When you get to the core, that's what this is about. Distracted or impaired drivers cause far too many accidents. Cell phones and multitasking behind the wheel are in the mix, even as alcohol looms large.
Some years ago, I participated in an exercise to demonstrate how it feels after consuming one, two and three glasses of wine. Breathalyzers measured our alcohol levels, and simple action tests determined how quickly we could react to or recognize dangers. After the third glass in an hour I definitely felt buzzed, and the tests proved it. But at my weight (north of 200 pounds, and I'm not saying how far north), I still blew less than .08, the current limit.
I decided that my personal limit would err on the safer side. I would not want to trust myself behind the wheel if I went beyond how I felt when I finished that second glass in one hour. For me it was about .05. And I sure don't want to encounter a car driven by someone else who was as distracted as I was after my third.
Since then, if I go to dinner expecting to consume a significant amount of alcohol, I make sure I have a way to get home that does not involve me driving. Should it be the law? I would feel safer if it were. As a nation we should have a conversation about whether the costs are worth it. The Aussies, and most of Europe, decided 0.05 was just fine. Can we?