News Column

NTSB Wants to Lower Blood Alcohol Limit to 0.05

May 20, 2013

James Mayse

A federal proposal to lower the level at which a person is considered too impaired to drive met with some support from local law enforcement officials, who said reducing the legal limit might encourage people to not order extra drinks when they are out on the town.

Businesses that serve alcohol -- or hold private events were alcohol is served -- said the proposed change will make it harder for bartenders and servers to do their jobs.

On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended states reduce the legal blood alcohol level from 0.08 to 0.05. An Associated Press report on the recommendation cited an NTSB study, which found traffic accidents caused by impaired driving in Europe decreased by more than half in the 10 years after Europe adopted a 0.05 legal blood alcohol level.

From the law enforcement prospective, reducing the legal limit will have no effect on daily operations, said both Daviess County Sheriff Keith Cain and Major Jeff Speed, field services supervisor for the Owensboro Police Department.

"In the field, we're just testing for impairment," Speed said. "We do aggressively try to keep impaired drivers off the street."

Because officers find impaired drivers by watching for erratic driving or violations of traffic laws, lowering the legal blood alcohol level "wouldn't affect us arrest-wise," Speed said.

"Where I do think it could make a difference for the community as a whole is, when a individual or family goes out to dinner and have a couple drinks, people may be less apt to have that additional drink," Speed said.

Cain said "a person can be under the influence and impaired at 0.05," and the lower rate would have no effect on an arrest because deputies "have already confirmed an arrest was needed" through field sobriety tests before a person's blood alcohol level is learned.

"I think it's good that we lower it from 0.08 to 0.05," Cain said. "Based on what we're seeing, I don't see it as a bad move at all.

"Hopefully, people will utilize it as a proactive measure" and drink less when out, Cain said.

John Condray, owner or Gambrinus Libation Emporium on Second Street, said lowering the blood alcohol level could be a deterrent to people who might otherwise drink too much.

"I'm not saying it's a terrible idea at all," Condray said. "Anything that makes people think twice (before drinking in excess) is a good thing."

Condray said servers are trained to look for signs of impairment and to cut people off if the server believes a person is intoxicated. Part of the server's job is to slow down an intoxicated person's drinking, offer them nonalcoholic drinks, cut off service and help the person arrange for a ride home, Condray said.

If a person believed to be intoxicated refuses help and leaves, an incident report is written, outlining what steps the server took, Condray said.

Lowering the rate "does put pressure on us. (A level of) 0.05, depending on the person, is a really low level." For a 150-pound male, a 0.05 level is "like the equivalent of two drinks in one hour's time," Condray said.

"We do our best to make sure no one ever gets into a car when they don't need to be driving," Condray said. The lower level might not be as much of an issue for Gambrinus as other bars, because Gambrinus closes at midnight and draws a crowd that generally stays longer and only has a few drinks, Condray said.

Teresa Thomas, director of the Hines Center in Philpot, said, "I do have a concern, because of the distance (people) have to drive from the facility" to Owensboro. The law would create difficulties for Hines Center servers and bartenders, Thomas said.

"If they're going to change the blood alcohol level, are they going to change the training, too?" Thomas said. "How are we going to know if someone is 0.05 drunk?

"It's a concern to most facilities that serve alcohol, because it puts another liability on us," Thomas said.

The Hines Center staff does take steps when a server believes a person is intoxicated, such as not serving more alcoholic drinks and trying to arrange a ride home for the person. But there are some steps that staff members can't take, Thomas said.

"The law is a very fine line," Thomas said. "You have to cut them off, but it's against the law to take their keys from them." One particular problem at the Hines Center is that taxis are often unavailable, Thomas said.

"If we are serving alcohol, we don't have a taxi service reliable enough to get (people) back to town," Thomas said.

Roxi Witt, executive director of the RiverPark Center, said there are alcohol sales at most public events that aren't predominately children's events. But she said she did not think the performing arts facility would have difficulty with the law.

"An awful lot of people like the availability (of alcohol), but it's not a place where people overindulge," Witt said. "... We certainly encourage responsible consumption."

Karen Miller Porter, executive director of the Owensboro-Daviess County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the proposed change is another reason the community needs enhanced transportation.

"That's one thing the entire community is really going to have to look at --shuttle service and transportation service," Porter said. "It's certainly a clear case for transportation; we hope to have large conventions where (people) are staying in the outlying hotels" as well as downtown, Porter said.


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