Lower legal limits no 'silver bullet' against drunk drivers
Photo: Video by tmj4.com
MILWAUKEE -- When a panel of federal transportation safety experts suggested lowering the legal limit of alcohol in a driver's blood from .08 to .05, it created a strange bit of common ground between otherwise feuding factions.
State lawmakers who want tougher laws against drunk drivers suddenly shared a position with the powerful lobby defending Wisconsin's watering holes.
Both sides contend a legal limit of .05 is not the solution to the state's drunk driving problem.
State representative Jim Ott (R-Mequon) has spent the last six months arguing for strict laws against even first-time drunk drivers.
When it comes to the .05 limit suggested by the National Transportation Safety Board in May, Ott believes it will not work.
"I guess I don't see it that way," Ott said. "I think that suggestion takes us in the opposite direction."
Strangely enough, the head of the Tavern League of Wisconsin has the same sentiment as the lawmaker otherwise battling against him.
"The lower limit of .05 would give a few people a warm fuzzy feeling, but it's going to put a lot of our members out of business," said Pete Madland, the executive director of the lobbying group representing tavern owners.
Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving is reluctant to embrace the suggested change.
The group pushed hard for a .08 national standard, but MADD National President Jan Withers was cool to the concept of taking it even lower.
In an interview from Washington, Withers respectfully refused to endorse the board's proposal.
"I actually respect NTSB for its reccomendation, but I think it would be a long, hard-fought fight for many more years to come," Withers said.
While Withers and MADD contend the .08 standard has saved lives, not everyone agrees lower legal limits are the best way to stop drunk driving.
Madland and Rep. Ott say lessons were learned from the change to .08.
They now believe lower legal limits by themselves have not significantly reduced the amount of deadly drunk driving crashes in Wisconsin.
Their assertions are supported by the numbers, it appears, as the average number of deadly drunk driving crashes actually increased after the lower limit took effect.
The I-TEAM analyzed more than a decade worth of Wisconsin alcohol-related crash data.
In the eight years before the state adopted .08, the average number of deadly wrecks linked to drinking and driving was 257.
In the four years after the change, the average actually increased to 279.
In 2008, however, things changed dramatically.
For the next four years, the number of deadly crashes linked to alcohol fell under 200, averaging 186 over the period.
It's a change for the positive that Rep. Ott does not link with the lower legal limit.
"There's other factors that are involved," Ott said. "The economy and gas prices, for example."
Again, this is a place where the lawmaker and the lobbyist agree.
"We have an educated public now that doesn't have the attitude about drunk driving now that they had 20, 30 years ago," said Madland.
One other statistic working against a lower legal limit is the average blood alcohol level of someone arrested for drunk driving in Wisconsin.
From 2004 to 2011, the average blood alcohol level of a person arrested for drunk driving in the state was .16, twice the current legal limit and more than three times what the NTSB is now suggesting.
Instead of fighting for lower legal limits, Rep. Ott wants tougher rules for first-time drunk drivers and believes a third OWI offense should be charged as a felony.
Madland is targeting tried-and-true Tavern League policies like Saferide, which provides transportation to help overserved customers get home safely.
In Washington, Withers wants to direct the efforts of MADD towards areas she knows produce results.
“We focus on what data shows is most effective right now,” Withers said. “That includes high visibility law enforcement, which are the sobriety checkpoints.
She insists the only safe limit when it comes to drinking and driving is zero.
“The safest way to ever move around in vehicles is to not drink and drive,” she said.