Raising BAC limit would be bad move

Guest Editorial
It’s being called a no-brainer. One would hope so.

The topic is whether limits should be raised that would allow individuals to consume more alcohol — up to 25 percent more — before they are considered legally too drunk to drive.

Of course, this shouldn’t happen. Lowering the limit 10 years ago has saved lives and reduced alcohol-related traffic fatalities by 25 percent.

So, why in the world would returning to higher levels even be debated in the state Legislature? Because it has to, thanks to the screwy way the law was originally passed in 2003.

Back then, a driver was considered to be driving while drunk if his blood-alcohol level topped 0.10 percent. The new law reduced that level to 0.08 percent. Yet it had a 10-year sunset provision that says the limit will return to 0.10 percent unless the Legislature takes action by Oct. 1 of this year.

What that means is that if Lansing does nothing, the legal tolerance for drunken driving will greatly increase.

Based on hearings held in the House this week, it appears as though Lansing is poised to do the right thing. No one testified in favor of the higher blood-alcohol limit and there were plenty of strong arguments — from police, judges and Mothers Against Drunk Driving — to support retaining the current level of 0.08 percent.

“This is really common sense and shouldn’t have any problems,” said state Rep. Andrea LaFontaine (R-Columbus) who sponsored the bill necessary to keep the standard lower.

But “common sense” isn’t always the flavor of the day in Lansing. There have always been those in Lansing who — because of influence from lobbyists or because they like to drink and drive — are wary about being too tough on alcohol. Thus, the current law carried a sunset provision that could have been enacted without a single lawmaker having to vote in favor of drunken driving.

The battle against drunken driving has been a long and deadly one. At one time, it took a blood-level content of 0.15 percent to be considered a drunk driver. Someone with that much alcohol in his bloodstream is a deadly menace on the road.

The lower limit has worked in Michigan in conjunction with increased enforcement and public education programs. The number of drunken-driving arrests has fallen by 32 percent in 10 years. Alcohol-related traffic deaths went from 340 in 2003 to 253 in 2011, according to the state police.

At 0.08 percent, the law does not make it illegal to drive after having a drink or two at dinner, or a couple of beers at the baseball game.

Actually, 0.08 percent is probably too high. By some estimates, a man would need to consume five or more drinks in a two-hour period to reach that level. You don’t want to be in a car — or facing an oncoming car — driven by that man.

Yet if saving lives and keeping drunken drivers off the roads isn’t enough reason, lawmakers should consider the financial impact of raising the blood-alcohol standard. Michigan would lose $50 million in federal highway funds if it steered away from the other 49 states who set the level at no higher than 0.08 percent.

There are people alive today because of the multi-pronged attack on drunken driving. There is no reason to reverse that trend. Lawmakers should quickly approve the bill that will maintain the current blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent.