Drinking and Driving: Raising the Bar?

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently suggested lowering the legal threshold assessing drunk driving – the blood-alcohol content (BAC) level – from the current level of 0.08 to 0.05. A 160-lb. man can reach that level of 0.05 with two beers or a single martini; a 120-lb. woman can reach that level with one glass of wine. With current regulation, drunken driving accounts for around 10,000 a year in the United States. The hope is that lowering the legal limit will prevent even more of these tragic deaths; one study shows that this move can save more than 500 lives a year.

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Yet even with a BAC of 0.05, it is shown that one is still 38 percent more likely to get into a car crash. And some show that one’s driving skills are impaired with a BAC as low as 0.01 percent.

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Before the legal BAC was lowered to its current level, alcohol-related deaths accounted for 48 percent of all highway fatalities. In 1980, when alcohol-related highway deaths reached 20,000, the standard state BAC was 0.15. Over the next two decades, by 2004, all states lowered the legal limit to a BAC of 0.08, thanks in large part to Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other grassroots organizations. By 2011, the number of alcohol-related highway deaths had fallen by more than 50 percent. If the NTSB succeeds in lowering the BAC to 0.05 in every state, the United States will join more than 100 nations that already have this BAC level or lower.

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Even with this impetus, it took federal legislation to ensure that every state lowered the BAC. In 2000, President Clinton signed legislation that withheld state highway construction funds from states that did not lower their BAC levels to 0.08. This economic persuasion worked, and all states soon complied. It would be helpful if our current Congress dragging its feet on creating all issues changed its ways and spurred this reform through similar legislation, which would almost certainly be signed by President Obama.

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Even with these advances, drunk driving remains a serious problem. It is estimated that about 4 million U.S. drivers are stopped by the police each year, but half manage to avoid arrest. Attempts to get drunk drivers to use interlock devices and other methods to monitor their drunk driving have met with minimal success. Relying upon a “designated driver” is not always the solution: University of Florida researchers found that 40 percent of those designated as the drivers had also been drinking, with half of those having levels that impaired their driving.

Jewish law mandates that we take extreme measures for pikuach nefesh (saving lives). The simple solution of drinking less, relying upon a trustworthy designated driver, or of paying for a cab is not too difficult to do and it may save a life. I have made the case that it is forbidden by Jewish law to text while driving and this is of course all the more so with drinking. In the meantime, the government should continue to regulate BAC levels, even if it means a few more DUIs need to be issued, frustrating those who think they “can hold their liquor.”

Significantly, the NTSB recommendation for a lower BAC coincided with the 25th anniversary of the worst drunk driving accident in history, when a man drove his pickup truck the wrong way on an interstate road in Carrollton, Kentucky, and hit a school bus at high speed, killing 27 people (24 children and 3 adults) and wounding 30. This is dramatic, compelling evidence that we must be as strict as possible with drunk drivers. Jewish law and our conscience demand action.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of seventeen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.