Even drivers with a slight "buzz"
are more likely to be at fault for accidents than the sober drivers they hit,
according to a new study.
The authors looked at fatal car crash data
from a US national database of more than 570 000 collisions between 1994 and
2011 and found there appears to be no safe level of alcohol in the bloodstream
when it comes to driving.
"This has a very wide range of
implications," lead author David Phillips, a sociologist at University of
California, San Diego, said. "For the individual driver it means don't
drive while buzzed, and for a passenger, don't get in a car with a driver who
Make the sober one the driver
"Find a way to make the sober one the
driver." The data Phillips and his colleagues analysed included blood
alcohol content (BAC) measurements for the drivers as well as clear indicators
of blame for the accident, such as which driver ran a red light or drove in the
Drivers with a BAC of .01%, the lowest
level recorded in the dataset, were 46% more likely to be solely blamed for the
crash than a sober driver, according to the results published in the journal
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Possibility of blame
An adult man would need half of one
12-ounce beer to generate a .01% BAC reading on a breathalyser test. That is
well below the US legal driving limit of .08%.
For men and women, as blood alcohol level
increased, so did the possibility of blame for the accident.
That's what would be expected based on
previous research, Phillips said, and this study won't be particularly
surprising to researchers, but it is the first nationwide analysis of data on
"buzzed" drivers. "There's nothing magical about .08," he
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Zero blood alcohol
No research indicates that a great change
in driving capacity takes place between .07 and .08. "The lower we can make
the legal BAC, the safer everyone will be," he said.
Many European countries have legal limits
of .05, and limits in Sweden and Japan are even lower, Phillips said. Strictly
following the data, the only safe driver is one with zero blood alcohol
content, he said.
Although the study builds on 50 years of
similar research, this one is unique and exciting because of its scale, said
James C Fell, senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research
and Evaluation in Calverton, Maryland.
Legal definition of 'drunk'
The first US legal definition of
"drunk" for the purpose of driving was set at .15 BAC in the 1930s
and remained until certain states gradually lowered their limits to .10 in the
1950s and 60s and then to .08, Fell said. "Now the research is very strong
especially in other countries that it should be .05," Fell said.
"Even if you're not aware of it, you
are impaired after one drink," he said. "Maybe not as much as after 5
drinks, but you are," he said.
As for legal implications in the US,
"in the case of judges, the data suggest that it's extremely arbitrary to
punish harshly people above .08 and leniently above .05, .06, and .07," Phillips
In fact, you can be convicted of drunk
driving with a .02 BAC, Fell noted – especially inexperienced drinkers, who
seem to be very impaired at low levels, whereas more experienced drinkers tend
to deteriorate at .05 and above.
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