If the United States government has its way, you could get a DUI for drinking a single martini giving a whole new meaning to the term “happy hour.” The National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”), a federal agency, has recently proposed that states lower the DUI standard from 0.08 to 0.05. Thus, while a person is currently considered legally “drunk” if he or she has a blood alcohol content (“BAC”) of 0.08, the legal standard may be reduced significantly if the federal government’s proposal is accepted by state governments.

Citing the need to reduce traffic accidents and fatalities related to drunk driving, the NTSB believes reducing the legal limit for what qualifies as a DUI will assist in that effort. The NTSB wants state legislatures to drop the current DUI qualifications so that a single martini or 2 beers in a 160 pound person will qualify as legally “drunk.”
Addressing the proposal, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman stated “The research clearly shows that drivers with a BAC above 0.05 are impaired and at a significantly greater risk of being involved in a crash where someone is killed or injured.” She further added: “Our goal is to get to zero deaths, because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable. They are crimes. They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will.”

The NTSB’s proposal, however, has met with fierce criticism. Sarah Longwell of the American Beverage Institute, an organization that lobbies for the alcohol industry, labeled the proposal a “terrible” idea. Commenting upon the rationale for the proposal, Ms. Longwell added: “Between 0.05 and 0.08 is not where the fatalities are occurring. This is like, people are driving through an intersection at 90 miles an hour and so you drop the speed limit from 35 to 25, it doesn’t make any sense.” She further added: “This is something that is going to have a tremendously negative impact on the hospitality industry while not having a positive impact on road safety.” Ms. Longwell noted that the average BAC level in an alcohol-related traffic fatality is generally around 0.16 or double the current limit.

Although the federal government lacks the Constitutional authority to dictate what the DUI laws should be in each state, a power reserved to the states, it has the power to force changes by conditioning receipt of federal dollars upon implementation of lower DUI standards. In other words, the federal government can withhold highway funding from states that refuse to lower the DUI limits. In light of this power, referred to by Constitutionalists as “cooperative federalism,” the federal government has the ability to effect changes in state policy by controlling the purse strings.

While DUI related traffic accidents are clearly a serious problem, it remains debatable whether reducing the legal limits will actually make a significant difference. Given the devastating effect the proposal could have on the hospitality, restaurant, nightlife and sporting industries, the federal government’s proposal should be given serious study before implementation.Don’t get mad, get legal!