Special to The Sun
During the past 15 years alcohol contributed to a third of highway deaths prompting the government this week to recommend reducing state Blood Alcohol Content limits from .08 to .05 or lower.
On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board released 19 recommendations aimed at reducing the number of alcohol-impaired crashes. They call for stronger laws, swifter enforcement and expanded use of technology.
“Most Americans think that we’ve solved the problem of impaired driving, but in fact, it’s still a national epidemic,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said. “On average, every hour one person is killed and 20 more are injured.”
Officials cited research showing that although impairment begins with the first drink, by .05 BAC, most drivers experience a decline in both cognitive and visual functions, which significantly increases the risk of a serious crash.
Currently, more than 100 countries on six continents have BAC limits set at .05 or lower, according to the NTSB. The agency has asked all 50 states to do the same. Other recommendations include:
• Increase use of high-visibility enforcement;
• Develop and deploy in-vehicle detection technology;
• Require ignition interlocks for all offenders;
• Improve use of administrative license actions;
• Target and address repeat offenders; and
• Reinforce use and effectiveness of Driving While Impaired courts.
Most drunk driver deaths are caused by drivers with twice the legal BAC limit, according to AAA. The most frequently recorded BAC among all drinking drivers in 2010 fatal crashes was .18.
In 2008, a total of 1,347 children age 14 and younger were killed in motor vehicle crashes, according to AAA. Of those, 1,347 fatalities, 216 (16 percent) occurred in alcohol-impaired driving crashes.
Oklahoma agencies already are ahead of the NTSB in many respects.
The Erin Swezey Act, signed by Gov. Mary Fallin in 2011, is named for a 20-year-old Edmond college student killed by a drunken driver. The driver had a blood alcohol level of .29, more than three times the legal limit, police said.
Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, was the principal author of the law sought by Erin’s parents, Keith and Dixie Swezey. They lobbied for greater use of mandatory interlock devices as a way to keep more drunken drivers off the road and reduce fatalities.
Under the law, an interlock device is required for 18 months on a first conviction for a BAC of .15 or higher. For a second or subsequent offense, the mandate would apply to those with a BAC of .08.
The interlock device is mandatory for four years on a second offense and for five years for subsequent offenses. In addition, the offender’s driver’s license has the designation “Interlock Required” as long as the device’s use is mandated.
The law took effect in November 2011.
Lowering the BAC would require action by the state Legislature.
Edmond patrol officers are always on the lookout for impaired drivers, and they occasionally participate in enforcement efforts with agencies including the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol Chief Kerry Pettingill said it is the agency’s duty to enforce current laws.
“We’ll do whatever the Oklahoma law becomes,” he said.
Pettingill said he believes the current limit has helped enforcement and education is the primary need regarding impaired driving. A current issue impacting public safety is the combined abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs, Pettingill said.
“The illegal use of prescription drugs has obviously become a forefront problem for us,” he said.
The state has increased the number of drug recognition experts who go out in the field to help agencies know when it’s not just an alcohol problem, Pettingill said.
Edmond resident Chuck Mai, spokesman for the auto club AAA Oklahoma, said cutting the BAC by half would save lives and send the message that any alcohol can impair a driver.
AAA is not interested as much in new policies as it is in seeing current policies enforced in Oklahoma, Mai said. It is also important that judges properly fine and sentence offenders, especially repeat offenders, Mai said.
“That’s really where we’d like to see the effort go right now,” he said.
Once the current issues are addressed then cutting the BAC level could be done, Mai said.
Oklahoma Highway Safety Office spokeswoman Alice Collinsworth said the state continues to have a serious impaired driver problem and her agency supports any reasonable action that would help reduce the number of injuries and deaths.
In July 2012, Congress approved a $20 million incentive program that will award states extra money if they require drivers convicted of drunk driving to have ignition interlock devices installed on their vehicles. At that time, 17 states had enacted these laws for first-time offenders.
For more information about alcohol-impaired driving, visit AAA’s duijusticelink.aaa.com/for-the-public.
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