Even moderate drinking before driving could become illegal if a federal safety panel's recommendation is enacted eventually by the states.
On May 14, 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that states cut their thresholds for drunken driving by more than a third — from a blood-alcohol content of .08 percent to .05 percent — in order to reduce highway fatalities.
A 180-pound man would reach 0.05 BAC by consuming three beers in one hour, according to a Wisconsin Department of Transportation online calculator.
The proposal, among others by the board, faces a long road before, if ever, becoming the law of the land. It took more than 20 years for all the states to act after the NTSB recommended reducing the drunk driving threshold in 1982.
Lowering the blood-alcohol benchmark could reduce the annual drunken-driving death toll of nearly 10,000 lives by as much as 10 percent, the board said.
The NTSB's recommendation even drew lukewarm support from the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who said the effort would take too long and undercut more effective programs.
MADD President Jan Withers, an Upper Marlboro resident, said her organization's three-pronged campaign could save many more lives. The plan is built around high-visibility law enforcement, ignition locks to prevent convicted drunken drivers from getting on the road and passive technology that measures the blood alcohol content of motorists.
"We want to save as many lives as possible as soon as possible," Withers said. "We respect the NTSB and its research, but it will take 15 to 20 years to change the laws in each state. We're already moving forward on our campaign, and it will happen sooner than what the NTSB can accomplish."
"Most Americans think that we've solved the problem of impaired driving, but in fact, it's still a national epidemic," said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman in a statement. "On average, every hour one person is killed and 20 more are injured."
NTSB studies indicate that at 0.05, depth perception and other visual skills begin deteriorating in some drivers and the risk of having an accident jumps by 39 percent.
At 0.08 BAC, the risk of having an accident increases by more than 100 percent.
In 1982, the NTSB recommended that states reduce the drunken-driving limit from 0.10 BAC. Utah became the first state to lower its limit the following year.
This is the beginning of a national discussion that will include the need for input from the general public.