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A New Proposal to Address Drinking and Driving

Will lowering the legal blood alcohol concentration limit improve safety? An important conversation for the alcohol industry and the country
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 28, 2013 2:27pm ET

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?

Steve Kubota
Bellingham, WA, USA —  May 28, 2013 8:18pm ET
The wine industry's silence is troubling. I think the industry has the most to lose and here are just a few reasons why.

I expect that revenues and tourism dollars spent in wine destinations will decline dramatically with the new legislation. Visitors to these regions will have to think twice about where they plan to visit and where they can stay in order to avoid getting a DUI. This not only hurts the wine industry but the overall economy in these regions as well.

Smaller, lesser known and, boutique vineyards & wineries may suffer the most as the majority of the visitors will only go to specific wine regions once or twice in their life and more than likely visit the establishments they are familiar with and others that may be in close proximity.

Wineries and vineyards do not discount their products as low as they could to protect their distributors and wholesalers. You can often find wine cheaper online than you can purchase directly from the producer.

I think they will have to develop a better marketing strategies and work more with local businesses, restaurants and tourism boards to make these visits more attractive than they are now.

They need to be more creative and develop better wine clubs, wine lists, etc. to make up for the potential lost sales in their tasting rooms due to less visitors.

The average visitor doesn't "taste" but consumes wine at tastings and in tasting rooms so education will be more important and relevant than ever. Tasting rooms may have to forgo tasting fees to promote spitting over drinking.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  May 29, 2013 12:50am ET
Wine Institute, California's industry organization, issued a short statement opposing the proposal to lower the blood alcohol limit.

"Wine Institute supports education and the strict enforcement of laws to address drunk driving. The legal threshold of .08 BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) was established as a safe level of consumption based on science and law enforcement guidance. Lowering the legal threshold would effectively criminalize moderate social drinking by responsible adults and divert resources that should be used to target drunk drivers."
Karl Mark
Illinois —  May 29, 2013 9:49pm ET
There are worse distractions than an extra glass of wine or beer. The heavy drinkers are the ones that scare me, and they are often mentally unstable to make the matter worse. It's not just an alcohol issue, it's a self control and impulse control issue.
Ian Hongell
Barossa Valley Australia —  May 31, 2013 12:56am ET
Clearly it has stopped the glass with the last course in Australia. If you are driving, you just don't have the extra one. The designated driver is normal now. It is kind of nice being able to take care of your mates while they may be letting their hair down just that little bit more than usual.
Cheers from a rain soaked Barossa.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  June 1, 2013 11:08am ET
My wife and I visited a number of wineries in France a couple years ago. The tasting room staff often warned non-native patrons about the lower limit and the aggressive enforcement in many areas. That was responsible and made an impression. I don't believe I've ever heard such a warning at US tasting rooms, even when a patron is clearly intoxicated to a degree that would make it dangerous for them to drive. I believe in that instance it would be entirely proper for the staff to inquire if the individual is driving and withhold any further tasting if so.
Rich Mora
East Setauket NY, USA —  June 4, 2013 7:44pm ET
Dear HS,
This hand wringing about how to best live with the new reality of ever tighter limits on responsible drinking has gone on for a long time. Judgement and reflexes needed to drive safely are impaired by any alcohol at all (as well as by fatigue, road rage, texting, etc...) that can not be denied but what we have now is the inverse of the "too much of a good thing is wonderful" argument. The argument here is that since lowering BAC correlates with lowered accidents then let's go for zero tolerance at which point there will (theoretically) be zero alcohol induced traffic accidents and we will all live forever. Unfortunately we also approach zero fun as well. I've been in the drinks business a long time and no one can tell me that raising the drinking age to 21 (which is higher than the Europeans we are supposed to emulate) and lower BAC's hasn't had a chilling effect on the on-premise business and I won't even start on the issue of personal liberty. As with everything else you have to weigh costs and benefits. In my humble opinion the BAC's should go back to 0.1 and the drinking age should go back to 18 and we ought to enforce the existing laws instead of criminalizing more of us that appreciate fine wine and spirits in moderation. Rather than bringing everyone down to the level of the lowest common denominator amongst us let us make the laws reasonable and crack down on the truly abusive and reckless lawbreakers.
Thomas Herer
Milwaukee, WI —  June 6, 2013 8:23am ET
The general assumption seems to be that a new law would criminalize driving with a BAC between 0.05 and 0.08. That's probably the case, but it is necessary? There's a difference between illegal and criminal activity, and I'd love to see that distinction be part of the conversation.

For example, my fair state of Maine classifies driving >= 30mph above the limit as criminal speeding, for which you can go to jail, just like a >= 0.08 DUI. Below that, it's a civil offense -- still illegal and punishable, but with the punishment altered to more or less fit the crime.

I'm as much a layperson as anyone when it comes to the law and politics, but this approach at least seems plausible. I'm pretty sure that's exactly how France does it -- a fine and points for .05, but possible jail time for .08 -- so there's definitely an overseas precedent here.

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