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Drunken driving, New Mexico style

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The National Transportation Safety Board, an influential independent agency, has recommended that all 50 states drop the minimum threshold of blood alcohol content used to prosecute drunken driving from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.

I could bet you a cold one it will never take effect here in the Land of the Lightly Lubricated.

That’s not to say it’s not a good idea, or that it wouldn’t save some lives.

So why would I make that bet? Because the culture of DWI here is all about really drunk and really, really drunk. Going after the kinda drunk seems like ignoring the mountains for the molehills.

But doesn’t driving impairment begin before 0.08 percent, which is New Mexico’s presumed level of intoxication? Yes.

Studies show coordination, attention and visual acuity are affected below 0.08. A review by the National Institutes of Health found that most studies reported significant impairment at 0.05 percent BAC. NTSB’s data says drivers at 0.05 are 38 percent more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers who have not been drinking.

Would lowering the level of presumed intoxication to 0.05 save lives here? Almost certainly. Would it save a lot of lives? That’s hard to say, but the answer is probably no.

Anyone who has lost a friend or relative in a DWI crash will tell you that one death is too many, but statistics tell us that it’s the really drunk drivers — not the kinda drunk drivers — who pose the greatest hazard.

After an all-out push to lower DWI fatalities in the administration of Gov. Bill Richardson, fatalities dropped from 219 in 2004 to an all-time low of 143 in 2008.

Robert J. Archuleta, the director of the state’s Traffic Safety Bureau, told me 152 people died in alcohol-involved crashes in 2011 and 155 last year.

He said he didn’t have statistics on how many of those fatal accidents in New Mexico involved drivers who had alcohol on board and were between 0.05 and 0.08 percent.

But he did share the average blood alcohol level of drunken drivers involved in fatal crashes in New Mexico. It’s 0.18 percent, double the state’s current presumed intoxication level and more than three times the 0.05 level the NTSB proposes. That’s the average, which means a lot of those New Mexico drivers are much more intoxicated. That statistic makes the people who are driving around at 0.05 seem like model citizens.

NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said in a C-SPAN interview that “.05 is not going to affect most Americans having a glass of wine, a bottle of beer, or two.”

But depending on a number of factors, including weight, sex and alcohol metabolism, one or two beers right before getting behind the wheel could ring up a 0.05 on a breath test.

There are all sorts of hazards on the road, including phone-talkers, texters, email readers, makeup appliers, exhausted people and the young man who was behind me on Alameda the other evening who was very busy lighting up a big bowl of pot.

But drunken driving remains the deadliest — and most preventable — hazard on our roads. According to Archuleta, it’s responsible for 41 percent of New Mexico’s fatal crashes.

Archuleta said the Traffic Safety Bureau isn’t taking a stance on lowering the limit. He said New Mexico has made great strides in reducing the number of people killed in drunken driving crashes and the bureau will continue to focus on what has worked — DWI checkpoints, saturation patrols and advertising campaigns that teach deterrence.

 

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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