Mothers Against Drunk Driving
May 7, 1997 — Committee on Environmental and Public Works, US Senate, Washington DC
Good morning, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee.
As National President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, I am here today to request that before this year is out, the Congress of the United States make it the law of the land that the definition of intoxication in every state be set at .08 blood alcohol content (BAC) for all drivers above the minimum drinking age of 21.
Earlier this year, Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio and Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, the author of the 21 Minimum Drinking Age law in 1984, introduced S. 412, the Safe and Sober Streets Act of 1997, a bill withholding highway construction funding from states which failed to lower their level of intoxication to .08 BAC after the expiration of a grace period. MADD strongly supports the passage of the Lautenberg/DeWine legislation.
The question raised by S. 412 and the question we raise here today is quite direct. It has long been lawful in the United States to drink and drive. MADD encourages people not to drink and drive and to be constantly aware of the dangers of mixing alcohol with driving a car. Nonetheless, it is legal to drive a car after consuming some measurable amount of alcohol. The question we ask today is: Where do we draw the line?
MADD urges this Committee to draw the line at .08 BAC.
Earlier this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), along with the National Safety Council, issued a report called “Setting Limits, Saving Lives: The Case for .08 BAC Laws.” In this report, NHTSA answers the most frequently asked questions about .08 BAC, which is, how much can I drink before I reach .08 BAC?
The answer is, if you are a 170 lb. male, you can drink four drinks on an empty stomach in the space of one hour and not exceed the limit. If you are a 137 lb. female, you can consume three drinks on an empty stomach in a one hour period before you reach the .08 BAC limit. MADD believes that .08 BAC is a generous definition of impairment and that level of alcohol consumption can hardly be characterized as social drinking.
You will be hearing, if your have not already heard, a lot of disinformation from the alcohol beverage and hospitality industries on this subject. The purpose of the information is clear to us. They are in the business of selling that 4th or 5th drink to a person who is already substantially impaired: we are in the business of dealing with the consequences of the impairment which results.
.08 BAC will save lives. How many lives? A conservative estimate is 500 to 600 per year. The person who made that estimate is Dr. Ralph Hingson of the Boston University School of Public Health, who accompanies me here today and would be pleased to answer questions you have about the life-saving potential of this measure and the impact .08 laws have had in states that have already adopted .08 as the illegal blood alcohol level .
The alcohol industry likes to try to discredit Dr. Hingson’s work in this area because he happens to serve on the MADD National Board of Directors. It so happens that Dr. Hingson was a well-respected researcher in the field of drunk driving prevention well before he ever joined our board and his research on this issue was completed before he was asked to serve on MADD’s Board. Senator Lautenberg might recall that Dr. Hingson did some of the most persuasive work on the lifesaving effectiveness of 21 year-old minimum drinking age laws.
You might ask, “Why .08 BAC, why not some other BAC level?” The answer is that while impairment begins with the first drink – which is the reason we set the BAC level for those below the 21 legal minimum drinking age at .02 BAC or less- the point at which all drivers critical driving tasks such as braking, steering, lane changing, judgment and divided attention are significantly impaired is .08 BAC. I would note that the Congress has set the acceptable BAC level for commercial motor vehicle operators, railroad engineers and airline pilots at .04 BAC.
Some of the opponents of .08 BAC have called this measure a step in the direction of prohibition. I would note, Mr. Chairman, that the permissible BAC level in Canada is .08 as it is in Great Britain, Switzerland and Austria. The highest permissible level in Australia is .08 BAC. I know of no one who maintains that Great Britain, Canada or Australia practice prohibition and it is clear that France who has set their BAC limit at .05 does not. The suggestion that .08 BAC constitutes prohibition is ridiculous.
In fact, .08 BAC does not heavily impact the consumption of alcohol. Despite the dire predictions made by its opponents, the passage of .08 BAC in the states has not led to a decrease in alcohol sales. There is no evidence that the per capita consumption of alcohol was affected in any of the five .08 BAC states examined by NHTSA in a recent analysis and even a four-state analysis by several alcohol industry organizations showed virtually no affect on overall consumption. To quote from the NHTSA report, ” Smart business owners know that demonstrating concern for their patrons’ safety is a good business practice that encourages loyalty.”
Mr. Chairman, this nation has made remarkable progress in the fight against drunk driving. I’m proud to say MADD has been part of that fight. You and this Committee can be proud of your role in passing such life-saving measures as 21 and Zero Tolerance for underage drinking. There are tens of thousands of Americas alive today who owe you a debt of gratitude because you had the courage to act. We’ve come a long way yet have a long journey ahead of us.
Last year 17,274 Americans lost their lives on our nation’s highways in alcohol-related fata; traffic crashes. This number constituted the first increase in drunk driving fatalities in a decade. The 17,274 Americans who lost their lives is 17,274 too many. We cannot tolerate this senseless loss of life. While the law tolerates the mixture of drinking and driving, there is a point at which we cannot tolerate this deadly combination and that point for all those over 21 is .08 BAC.
Some will argue that states should have the sole discretion in determining what their drunk driving laws should be. We believe that the states and Congress should listen to the American public and a 1996 survey revealed that 78% of those surveyed believe that federal involvement in assuring safe highways is very important. In a Gallup survey released in 1994, the majority of Americans surveyed supported lowering the illegal blood alcohol limit to .08. We are asking you today to listen to the American public.
When the time came for the 21 minimum drinking age law to be the law of the land, withholding sanctions were appropriate. When the time came for zero tolerance for drivers under the age of 21 to be the law of the land, withholding sanctions were used. The time has now come for .08 BAC to be the law of the land.
Some issues are of such national importance that they transcend state lines and require uniformity across our nation. This was the message that states’ rights proponent and former President Ronald Reagan gave when he signed into law the federal 21 minimum drinking age law. That was the message that former Arkansas Governor and now President Clinton gave when he signed into law the National Highway System bill requiring states to adopt the zero tolerance standard of .02 BAC for young drivers. Every day millions of Americans cross state borders for business or pleasure. They should have a right to safe passage.
Mr. Chairman , I hope that this Committee and this Congress will demonstrate that it will not tolerate an increase in drunk drinking deaths for the first time in a decade. I implore this Committee to draw the line at .08 BAC and make .08 BAC the law of the land before this year is through. The increase in alcohol-related fatalities in 1995 should serve as a wake-up call to this nation, to the American public and media. The drunk driving problem has not been solved and will not be solved until safety becomes our top priority, not only in Washington, but in every state. We must avoid the complacency which can come with success. We must not only continue what has worked in the past, but we must remain vigilant in our efforts to find new solutions to drunk driving, our nation’s most frequently committed violent crime. We can no longer tolerate more than 17,000 alcohol-related deaths a year on our nations highways just because they happen one, two or three at a time. The time has come for the U.S. to follow the lead of the other industrialized nations and not lag behind them in efforts to reduce alcohol-related deaths and injuries on our highways.
Thank you for the opportunity to present our views and I and Dr. Hingson look forward to your questions.
Source: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Committee on Environment and Public Works, US Senate, 105th Cong., 1st Sess. (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office) 1999, pp. 606-607.