NTSB calls for lowering blood alcohol limit, but is that the answer?

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Story highlights

  • NTSB official: Studies in other countries show dropping the legal BAC limit from 0.08 to 0.05 saves lives
  • She points to a poll suggesting most Americans would approve the move, thinks it should be an option for states
  • MADD says the focus should be on other things, like the use of car breathalyzers for convicted drunken drivers

(CNN)No one is going to tell you they support drunken driving, or that something shouldn't be done to deter people from hitting the road hammered.

But is lowering the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) limit that something?
The National Transportation Safety Board said as much Thursday, recommending that states drop legal BAC levels from 0.08 to 0.05 -- "or even lower" -- to deter more people from driving while intoxicated.
"Safety is a journey, not a destination," the NTSB tweeted. "Reducing BAC limit to .05 is one of many steps to end substance impairment in transportation."
This recommendation isn't new. NTSB has proposed it the last three years, according to Frank Harris, the state governmental affairs director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. In that time, it's gotten little traction in state legislatures, with Harris saying there hasn't been a single committee hearing on the topic.
"It's pretty low the way it is," Mark Mueller, the owner of Moe's Burger and Brews in Rock Island, Illinois, told CNN affiliate WHBF. "I don't think going to 0.05 will do any good."
Even MADD -- among the biggest champions of the 0.08 limit, a level that Harris called "well-studied ... that has saved lives" -- hasn't taken an official position.
It's not that Harris' group, other advocates, or even bar owners think people should be able to drive drunk. It's that they don't think this is the best way to prevent them, especially given the limited appetite in state legislatures (which, while the federal government can pressure them, set drunken driving laws).
"We believe we can save more lives and eliminate drunken driving (doing other things)," said Harris. "We've been pushing."
But NTSB Vice Chairwoman Bella Dinh-Zarr thinks going to a 0.05 limit would save lives, citing studies from other countries where it's been implemented.
Many things can be done to combat drunken driving -- and Dinh-Zarr thinks lowering the bar for what counts as legally drunk should be one of them.
"That's where we see a significant increase in crash risk," Dinh-Zarr said, claiming that someone with a BAC between 0.05 and 0.08 is three times more likely to be in a crash with someone with no alcohol in their blood at all.
"... And because people know the law is out there, they won't have to think about, 'Should I have one drink or two?'"

MADD: Focus more on car breathalyzers

Drunken driving is deadly, killing what works out to one person every 51 minutes in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That works out to more than 10,000 deaths a year -- nearly one-third of all traffic-related deaths -- with children below age 14 accounting for 17% of those fatalities.
Dinh-Zarr said the numbers have largely remained steady over the past two decades, though Harris notes there has been some positive movement of late attributable to government policies, tougher law enforcement crackdowns and better cars.
"There's been progress against drunken driving," Harris said. "But there's still room for improvement."
To be fair, lowering the legal blood alcohol limit is just one of several recommendations the NTSB laid out in a recent publication, "End Substance Impairment in Transportation."
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Others include "increased use of high-visibility enforcement," bolstering existing drunken driving laws and technology that will make it so people can't even start their cars if they're legally drunk. Some of these are in development (like a passive system that will know whenever you try to turn on your car), while others are being used right now, like ignition interlock devices.
That's what MADD is more focused on, trying to make sure all states require convicted drunken drivers to breath in interlock devices (also known as car breathalyzers) before their car will start. The advocacy group credits this technology with drastically reducing repeat drunken driving offenses and saving lives, and notes that (unlike lowering legal blood alcohol levels) it's got widespread support.
Said Harris, "There is an appetite for what MADD is trying to do."

Bar owner: 'Do they want us to lock the doors?'

Bill Collins -- who owns Me and Billy in Davenport, Iowa -- has nothing against responsible drinking. Still, he told WHBF, "there are a lot of other things to be considered" besides blood alcohol levels, especially given that such a high percentage of drunk driving incidents (85%, per the CDC) involve binge drinkers.
"We are not really gaining much by lowering it," Collins said.
He's got support from Mueller, whose own bar is located across the Mississippi River.
Patrons should be able to stop in to enjoy themselves, "and not have ... one beer and then worry about passing an alcohol test." There's a limit to (how) far the government should go -- and lowering the blood alcohol limit further is too far, according to Mueller.
He joked, "Do they want us to lock the doors this week or next week?"
Yet Dinh-Zarr stressed that moving to a 0.05 isn't about "criminalizing" drinking. It's about forcing people to have a plan to safely get home before they head out.
Even if bar owners aren't thrilled, most drivers -- over 63%, according to a 2014 AAA survey -- support the measure. So have more than 100 countries, many of which (like Ireland, Russia and Canada) don't traditionally shy away from drinking alcohol.
In many such places now with a 0.05 limit, people drink more per capita but are less likely to die in drunken driving crashes, according to the NTSB vice chairwoman.
"It lowers the number of fatal crashes around the world," Dinh-Zarr said of the lower threshold. "... From our position, we think that people should have the freedom to use the tool of 0.05 in their states."