0.08 blood-alcohol limit will save lives

With traffic deaths at unprecedented levels, Gov. Tim Pawlenty is encouraging the Legislature to lower the state’s legal blood-alcohol limit to 0.08 percent, giving life to a measure struggling against beverage industry lobbying. It seems an obvious and necessary step that will save lives.

Minnesota is one of five states still clinging to the 0.10 percent standard. Studies estimate lowering the standard decreases traffic deaths by 5 percent to 12 percent. Minnesota officials claim if the Legislature would have adopted the change when the issue first came up in the mid-1990s, it would have saved about 70 lives. These are staggering numbers and are the strongest reason for change.

One reasonable argument against lowering the limit has been that threshold violators are not the drivers causing the problems. Indeed, people argue that reckless drunks way over the limit tend to be the habitual violators and those who cause accidents. One can picture a responsible individual leaving a bar genuinely and reasonably believing his driving ability is not impaired. Although he might not be very inebriated, if pulled over, he might get a DWI, which carries stiff fines and higher insurance rates. Laws that might penalize innocuous behavior incur public distrust and can be unfair. As such, the Legislature should only write such a law if absolutely necessary. We feel this is one of those cases.

There are two main reasons to lower the DWI standard and why it should increase road safety. The first is that if the legal limit is lowered, most people will be more careful when socializing if they have to drive. The second reason is that enforcing these laws is difficult – the vast majority of citations come from impaired drivers making a mistake other than being impaired. Thus, many drunk drivers evade the law. When enforcement is less than certain, both the standards and penalties must be strict to deter would-be violators.

After all the discussion, the end calculation is simple: A new DWI standard will save lives; therefore, the Legislature should adopt it.