Lower blood-al­co­hol limit for DWI

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - BALANCED VIEWS -

Sept. 12 marks two years since the fu­neral of my 15-month-old son, Liam. He had been in a stroller, be­ing pushed through a pedes­trian cross­walk in sub­ur­ban Los An­ge­les by my sis­ter-in-law, who was 15 years old at the time. She had done ev­ery­thing right: pressed the but­ton, waited for the lights to change and then started walk­ing. Other cars stopped, but one didn’t. Po­lice later es­ti­mated that the car was go­ing 35 to 40 mph as it smashed into Liam and my sis­ter-in-law. The car was driven by a 72-year-old woman. She was drunk and be­hind the wheel at 3:30 in the af­ter­noon.

Liam and my sis­ter-in­law were both rushed, un­con­scious, to the hospi­tal. She sur­vived, and be­gan a slow phys­i­cal re­cov­ery from her in­juries and even slower emo­tional re­cov­ery from post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der and sur­vivor’s guilt. Liam’s in­juries were dev­as­tat­ing. Doc­tors soon told my wife, Mishel, and me that our son was brain-dead. We had to make the dev­as­tat­ing de­ci­sion to take him off life sup­port.

Since that day, I have learned a lot. I have learned about the hor­ri­ble pain of los­ing a child, es­pe­cially when that loss was pre­ventable. Liam’s life was not taken by dis­ease or nat­u­ral dis­as­ter. His life was stolen by some­one who chose to get be­hind the wheel of a car when drunk. The driver later pleaded guilty to ve­hic­u­lar man­slaugh­ter and was sen­tenced to six years in prison.

She had failed a field sobriety test, au­thor­i­ties said, which meant her blood-al­co­hol con­cen­tra­tion level was in ex­cess of the 0.08 le­gal limit. But be­cause there was no trial, her blood-al­co­hol con­cen­tra­tion level was not re­vealed by prose­cu­tors.

I have learned that Liam was one of the 10,497 peo­ple whose lives were taken by drunk driv­ers in the United States in 2016.

I have also learned that ev­ery U.S. state sets the blood-al­co­hol con­cen­tra­tion limit at 0.08 — and that if the limit were low­ered to 0.05, count­less lives would be saved. Study af­ter study has shown the ef­fect of low­er­ing the limit, in­clud­ing re­search led by Steven Teutsch at the Na­tional Academies of Sciences, En­gi­neer­ing and Medicine, and by James C. Fell, a prin­ci­pal re­search sci­en­tist at the so­cial-sci­ence in­sti­tute NORC at the Univer­sity of Chicago. States once set the limit at 0.10 but, over the past few decades, have low­ered it to 0.08, re­sult­ing in an ap­prox­i­mately 10 per­cent de­cline in al­co­hol-re­lated traf­fic fa­tal­i­ties, Fell’s re­search found, trans­lat­ing into 24,868 lives saved be­tween 1983 and 2014.

Sup­port for low­er­ing blood-al­co­hol lim­its has come from in­sti­tu­tions in­clud­ing the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Na­tional Academy of Sciences, the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board and the Amer­i­can Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion. Two years ago, Mishel and I launched the Liam’s Life Foun­da­tion and joined the fight.

Low­er­ing the blood-al­co­hol limit doesn’t af­fect how much peo­ple drink, as Fell’s re­search in­di­cates, but it does af­fect their de­ci­sions about driv­ing.

Sev­eral Euro­pean coun­tries, in­clud­ing Ger­many and the Netherlands, with pop­u­la­tions that con­sume sig­nif­i­cantly more al­co­hol than Amer­i­cans per capita, have blood-al­co­hol lim­its of 0.05 or lower, yet the num­ber of drunken-driv­ing fa­tal­i­ties per capita is sig­nif­i­cantly be­low that in the United States.

One rea­son for the dif­fer­ence is that else­where, even in coun­tries with strong drink­ing cul­tures, drunken driv­ing of­ten has a much worse so­cial stigma than in the United States — you just don’t do it. My home coun­try of Swe­den sets the blood-al­co­hol limit at 0.02. Peo­ple en­joy drink­ing; fines for driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence are hefty and the pun­ish­ments harsh, but more im­por­tant, drunken driv­ing is just not so­cially ac­cept­able.

The move­ment to lower the blood-al­co­hol limit in the United States has been dif­fi­cult. I be­lieve there are two rea­sons that politi­cians across the coun­try are re­luc­tant to lend their sup­port. One is the in­flu­ence of lob­by­ing by the al­co­hol and hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­tries. A pro­posal to lower Utah’s blood-al­co­hol limit to 0.05 in 2013, for in­stance, was de­rided by the Amer­i­can Bev­er­age As­so­ci­a­tion as “ridicu­lous” and “crim­i­nal­iz­ing per­fectly re­spon­si­ble be­hav­ior.”

But per­haps an even big­ger and more dis­heart­en­ing rea­son for this re­sis­tance is that in Amer­ica, we as a cul­ture are too tol­er­ant of drunken driv­ing — not just among friends but even in the le­gal sys­tem, as driv­ers can be charged with mul­ti­ple DUIs with­out suf­fer­ing sig­nif­i­cant penal­ties or pub­lic shame.

We’ll never be able to elim­i­nate drunken driv­ing com­pletely — peo­ple will al­ways break the law — but re­duc­ing it sig­nif­i­cantly, and sav­ing count­less lives, is en­tirely within our reach. It re­quires po­lit­i­cal courage and a cul­tural shift to­ward re­spon­si­bil­ity and car­ing for oth­ers.

As re­ported by the Amer­i­can-States­man’s El­iz­a­beth Fin­dell, Austin city lead­ers ap­proved a $4.1 bil­lion bud­get — the city’s largest. It passed with a 10-1 vote Tues­day, with Coun­cil Mem­ber Ellen Trox­clair op­pos­ing. It sets a tax rate of 44.03 cents per $100 of prop­erty value, mak­ing the city’s por­tion of the tax bill roughly $1,317 for a me­dian-value home worth $332,366. That’s a $66 tax bill in­crease on a me­dian-value home com­pared with 2018. To­tal city taxes and fees are ex­pected to go up about $77 for the av­er­age home­owner.

Juan Al­varado: All be­cause Austin has elected the wrong lead­ers. Call your rep­re­sen­ta­tives, put the pres­sure on them ... One prob­lem is that too many big landown­ers are be­ing sub­si­dized by prop­erty tax loop­holes, big busi­ness in­cluded. Most of Texas’ work­ing class are the ones pay­ing the bills . ... [L]eg­is­la­tors should fo­cus (on) find­ing ways to lower prop­erty taxes in half and bring about state taxes. This would cre­ate a bal­ance straight across all lev­els of in­come. In the long run, (it) would pro­duce a bet­ter in­come for the state, in the name of fair­ness. Mind you, this is some­thing that will not be con­sid­ered by the pol­i­cy­mak­ers. My opin­ion.

Ess Lane: That’s right. Price every­one out of Austin. Been here 34 years, and now I can barely af­ford to live here.

Sharon Cham­ber­lain: But the value of your real es­tate dou­bles ev­ery year, so boohoo. Kurt An­tonini: What good is that un­less we move?

Har­lie Barnard: They are killing the fixed in­come home­owner.

Ben­jamin Sefton: But what is the city of Austin spend­ing $4 bil­lion a year on?

Michael Gibbs: Prob­a­bly at least $1 bil­lion on a study to de­velop the Austin land-use code that will ul­ti­mately be aban­doned ... .

Rick Wil­lis: I guess you live in a so­ci­ety. So do I.

Sorgean Ro­driguez: With the new soc­cer sta­dium, they’re just go­ing to go up and up.


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De­mon­stra­tors wait in July to get in­side Austin City Hall for a coun­cil meet­ing.

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