Lowering Blood Alcohol Content Levels for DUI

May 23, 2013

The National Transportation Safety Board caused a stir recently when it recommended lowering the blood alcohol level for driving under the influence to .05 percent nationwide.  The legal limit in Pennsylvania, as well as in almost every other state, is currently .08 percent.  A recent article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and other online sources, made some interesting points related to the NTSB’s announcement.

The primary point of the Post -Gazette’s article is that even if the change is made, it would not likely be made soon and could perhaps take decades.  Even the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania DUI Association, which supports the lower BAC change, admits that making the change could take "awhile". 

You may remember that back in 2003 the Pennsylvania Legislature reduced the legal limit from .10 to .08.  Pennsylvania was one of the last states to lower its BAC to .08 and it did so only in response to the federal government’s announcement that if it did not do so, it would lose highway funds.  One of the more interesting aspects brought up by the article was that the reduction to .08 percent was the result of a two decade process.  One of the primary concerns back then was that the lower limit would target people having drinks with dinner instead of highly intoxicated drivers who cause the majority of DUI-related accidents. 

The Post-Gazette article also states that while Pennsylvania is reviewing the NTSB’s recommendation, there are no current plans to lower the standard to .05. Moreover, a recent piece by USA Today states that the Governor’s Highway Safety Association supports the current .08 alcohol threshold, citing that when the limit was at .10 it was very difficult to get it lowered to .08.  The Agency also does not expect any state to go to .05 percent.  

The Pennsylvania Tavern Association, which opposes the proposed change, believes that the answer lies in increasing penalties and treatment for highly intoxicated drivers.  A piece posted on has a similar take, arguing that stronger penalties for repeat offenders and drivers with much higher BACs will be more effective than lowering the BAC standard.  Another alternative would be to charge those caught driving with a BAC between .05 and .08 with an offense that is less severe than driving under the influence, such as a summary charge, which would be the equivalent of a traffic ticket.  In fact, Colorado currently has exactly such a law called “Driving While Ability Impaired” with penalties and consequences that are less strict than regular DUI charges.

The USA Today article further points out that the advocacy group, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, while not opposing the NTSB’s recommendation, would rather focus on pushing for better technology to prevent convicted drunk drivers from operating a vehicle after drinking. In Pennsylvania, such ignition interlock devices are required for certain repeat offenders as I have discussed in a previous post. The devices require repeat offenders to blow into a breathalyzer-type device before they are allowed to start their car. If the device detects alcohol, the ignition system becomes disabled.

In any event, it is clear that despite all the recent buzz the NTSB’s announcement has made, if any changes are made, they will not likely be in the near future if at all.  We will be sure to stay on top of this matter, so please check back for any updates.

Matthew Grosh is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from Villanova University and practices in a variety of areas including DUI/ARD.