(Source: Kalamazoo Gazette)
Taxpayers will be left on the hook for up to $10M USD or more in states with low-income protections

Under proposed and pending federal guidelines, just one beer with your midday work lunch could cost you your freedom.  Under the new rules that drink could not only land you in the slammer, but with a "Scartlet Letter" of sorts branded to your car -- an ignition interlock.

I. What's Legal and Illegal Today

While drunk driving is universally condemended, society has spent the last century debating what defines being "drunk" legally, and that debate is ongoing. 

Much of the peer-reviewed data suggests that so-called "mild" intoxication (e.g. BAC 0.09) can increase the risk of fatal crashes and nightime crashes (while seeming to have minimal impact on daytime rates).  However, peer reviewed research in the 1970s and 1980s largely did not differentiate between people with 0.080-0.99 BAC range versus those in the 0.050-0.079 BAS range.

Don't Mix 'em 1937
In 1937 (the year this poster was printed) a BAC of 0.14 was not considered "drunk".  Today it is.  Now the debate has shifted as to whether BACs as low as 0.061 should be considered "drunk".
[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

The reason why is that in the 1980s the debate revolved around whether the legal limit should remain at -- 0.15 BAC -- the threshold in many states.  Peer-reviewed evidenced seemed to back a lower legal threshold, particularly considering drivers in the 0.10-0.15 range "drunk".   This data coupled with s a push by advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) led to states in the 1980s embracing a stricter limit of 0.08, while adopting "zero-tolerance" limits of 0.01 or 0.02 percent blood alcohol for teenage drivers.  The public largely supported this move, which again, was backed by relatively conclusive statistics.

Now the debate has shifted.

II. "Non-Drunk" Drivers by Today's Laws Could be Considered "Drunk" by Tomorrow's Laws

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) -- a quasi autonomous federal organization which suggests changes that should be made to make traffic safer and more efficient -- suggested in May 2013 that the drunk driving limit should be lowered across the U.S. from 0.08 (the current level) to 0.05 BAC (blood alcohol content).

As for adult drivers in this range currently the law considers these people safe to drive.  Studies have suggested that at as little as 0.015 -- a virtually imperceptible amount of blood alcohol, people's ability to "mult-task" attention wise begins to decrease.  As you approach 0.05 (a level where mental intoxication generally still isn't felt) you're capacity to track objects, to react to sudden emergency situations, and overall coordinations begins to decrease.

But such issues start of mild and gradually worsen with increasing BAC.  At low levels, critics have pointed out they may be no more distracting then a passenger talking with you (which also diminishes multi-tasking and tracking abilities, etc.), looking at a GPS, or eating.

This may explain the divide between physiological research (which suggests impairment in this range) and epidemiology research (which does not conclusively show higher crashes in this range).

Peer-reviewed research from the 1970s and 1980s is largely not useful to give insight into the affects of alcohol at these levels, as these numbers lumped in the range (0.080-0.099), which has been illegal since the 1980s.  It is known from physiology studies that affects are not constant and increase gradually with increasing BAC.  Thus much of the higher rates seen in the 0.000-0.099 range studied in these decades is thought to have occured in the high end (0.080-0.099)

Only recently has research began to look at the lower end (0.060-0.079), which is not currently considered "drunk" in any U.S. state.  Studies have shown that inexperienced drivers low amounts of alcohol can lead to higher crash rates than in season drivers.  But there's already a zero-tolerance policy for young drivers.  When it comes adults the picture is murkier -- people in this range may be no more of a threat than the average driver with no alcohol in their system.  From a research standpoint the question of whether this level raises risks for adult drivers remains inconclusive, at best.

However, lawmakers feel that it's better to be safe than sorry, lowering the threshold further, even thought there's no clear scientific evidence that will keep Americans safer on the roads.

Under the new law, an average size male would be considered "impaired" once they had consumed one 16 oz. craft beer and the alcohol entered their bloodstream.

Sandwich beer
That lunchtime beer could soon cost you your freedom. [Image Source: Moerlein Lager House]

The change would force Americans to significantly alter their behaviors -- particular when it comes to "lunchtime beer" some enjoy.  While body chemistry varies, a 180-pound (81.6 kg) male will typically hit 0.08 after four "drinks" (12 oz. domestic beers) over an hour, according to the University of Oklahoma.  Three drinks would be required to hit 0.06.

If you're drinking
a craft beer (typically double the alcohol by volume of a domestic beer), a single 16 oz. drink could put the average male over the legal limit.  This would force Americans to either alter their behavior or take a taxi to lunch.  Otherwise Americans could soon risk becoming one of the growing prison population, just another number to a nation that imprisons more of its people than any other country in the world (officially, at least).

The NTSB last December also suggested that first time offenders (including those under the lower "drunkness" threshold) have ignition interlocks put on their cars.

III. New Guidelines Would Require All First Time DUI Offenders to Have In-Car Interlocks Devices

Now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)  -- a body that takes the NTSB's suggestions and Presidential input and formulates "guidance" for the states -- has embraced that suggestion, issuing in its latest whitepaper guidelines [PDF] for states a fresh federal guideline that makes in the policy of, if not the law of the land.

Drunk driver
The government and activist groups want to make sure a drunk driver can never get in a car and drive in the first place. [Image Source: CNN]

States would still have to agree to the proposal, but if put in place by state lawmakers it could more that quadruple the number of drivers forced to use ignition interlocks.

An ignition interlock is essentially an in-car breathalyzer, with logging capabilities.  The driver is supposed to blow into it each time they want to start the car.  If they blow and they're below the legal threshold the device removes the titular lock on the ignition.  Either way, in newer models the results are typically logged.  If drivers fail a specified number of tests (often three) the car is permanently locked, until you tow it to a service center, at which point your probations officer is notified of your attempt.

A typical ignition interlock
A typical ignition interlock is a noticeable addition to the offender's vehicle. [Image Source: U.S. DOT]

At present state laws have forced about 150,000 habitual DUI (driving under the influence) offenders to install and use in-car interlock systems [source].  The systems aren't perfect as they have no way of checking who is blowing into them -- if a sober passenger (or even companion riding separately) blows into them, a driver with the interlock can start the car, without the sobriety check.

While the NHTSA is pushing automakers to deploy more advanced passive sensors, which "sniff" alcohol while the vehicle was motion and hence prevent drivers from tricking the system, such devices remain expensive and not unready accuracy-wise for a nationwide rollout.  So instead, the NHTSA has decided to revise its guidelines to suggest expanding the scope of state ignition interlocks so that all motorists convicted of drunk driving are forced to use one.

IV. Guidelines Could Dramatically Increase Interlock Adoption

Twenty states already require interlocks for all DUI offenders, even marginally intoxicated first time offenders.  One of the states in the narrow majority of those that doesn't is Michigan, home to the "automotive capital of the world" (Detroit),

The office of the Secretary of State in Michigan says that last year [PDF] ver 36,000 Michiganders were convicted of drunk driving -- or rough 1 in every 275 drivers on Michigan's roads.

Ignition interlock
As repeat offense rates are low among first-time offenders with lesser intoxication levels, Michigan currently saves ignition interlocks for repeat offenders, those who injure someone, or the extremely intoxicated.  That could soon change. [Image Source: Kalamazoo Gazette]

Given the harsh fines and potential jail time, most drivers in Michigan don't make that mistake twice.  Michigan requires that all repeat offenders and all first time offenders with a "very high" BAC (0.17 -- or twice the legal limit of 0.08 -- and up) to get one as well.  Together, though, only 8,000 (22.2 percent) of those convicted of DUI fell into that category.  That statistic suggests that extremely intoxicated drivers and repeat offenders are in the relative minority, with only about 1 in 5 DUI offenders falling into that category.

But under the new guidelines, if adopted, those other 4 out of 5 first-time offenders with BACs moderately over the limit would have to get the interlocks installed as well.

Drunk driving
Under the current U.S. system many higher wage earns get charged with a DUI on their first offense, but have it reduced to a traffic infraction or dropped altogether after they get a lawyer and challenge the charges. [Image Source: U.S. DOT]

An interlock system costs around $75 USD, which the driver must pay out of pocket.  The system also costs around $50-75 to monitor a month and is eligible for removal once you reach 1 year from when your license was suspended.  So the total monitoring cost are at least $600-900 USD over that first year.

V. Non-Offenders Will Pay Millions in Taxes for Poverty-Level DUI Offenders

And here comes the interesting and underreported twist.  An epidemiology study carried out by The Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE) reveals insight into the correlation between poverty and DUI convictions.  Readers may recall that PIRE is the same institute leading the controversial current program that collects blood and breath samples from drivers at police roadblocks across the country

In its 1987 study PIRE researchers compiled data from California DUI arrests, concluding that almost a third of those convicted were unemployed/underemployed (part-time workers) (30 percent), while over a fifth (22 percent) were high school dropouts.  The median annual income for a drunk driver at the time was $16,500 USD ($33,000).  That suggests between a third and a half of the drivers convicted of DUIs may be poverty level.

This makes sense, as many upper-to-middle class income earners hire lawyers and find ways to make the charges go away or be reduced to other traffic violations if the defendant has a clean history.  Poverty level drunk drivers typically can't afford a top notch lawyer with the connections with local judges to pull these kind of favors, so they're left with the mark on their record.

Monopoly super tax
Drivers could soon be on the hook for paying impoverished drivers' breathalyzers, although most low-level offenders don't repeat their offense. [Image Source: Milton Bradley]

Many states -- including Michigan -- have laws on the books that soften the impact slightly on low income earners -- but at the cost of taxpayers.  Michigan's program only charges low income individuals $2 USD per month for monitoring.  Hence taxpayers are required to pick up the remaining $576-876 USD in monitoring costs.

Add in the epidemiology statistics, and the net cost to taxpayers not convicted of DUIs, as well as those convicted will likely be anywhere from $5.4M and $12.3M USD.

VI. The Scarlet Letter

Further, there will be other impacts as interlock devices are very visible.  While most states allow employers to perform background checks and reserve the option to exclude the with DUI arrests, the situation for thos ein stable jobs is somewhat less severe.

Assuming they don't get significant jail time, up to 80 percent of those convicted may be able to avoid having their employer find out (as their car won't have any visible sign of the arrest).

With the new interlocks, observant employers will be able to instantly spot those arrested.  The law offers no protection from termination from private business who find their employees were guilty of drunk driving.

scarlet letter
An ignition interlock has been reserved in some states for only repeat and extreme offenders as it's a "Scarlet Letter" of sorts marking the driver's guilt.  It can carry notable social and financial reprecussions for the driver. [Image Source: Amazon]

However, most employers likely will not take that road immediately for first time offenders.  What is more likely is that they will use that information to justify pay cuts or other measures to reduce the employee's earnings -- money which then flows back up the ranks.

Further, there's the social stigma first time offenders will face, as family and friends will be able to instantly see the mark of your conviction.

VII. States are Considering Expensive, Punitive Addition to Enforcement Program

Despite the millions extra in taxpayer money spent for "welfare monitoring" and potentially devastating impact to first time DUI offenders, many states including Michigan seem open to approving this costly expansion.

Rep. Nancy Jenkins (R-Mich.), a member of the dominant Republican majority in the state legislature, says Michigan's interlock program -- only in its third "pilot year" -- has done great so far.  She tells The Detroit News:

This program has been proven to help stop those with repeat DWI issues from committing further drunk driving offenses.  By making this a permanent program, we can help to keep all Michigan motorists safer.

State officials with the governor's office said the state was examining the NHTSA guidelines and might consider their adoption.

Such a decision would inevitably bring further criticism by those who argue all these punitive new punishments are unnecessary as traffic fatalities have fallen to their lowest levels since 1949 without a policy change.  But the NTSB and NHTSA seem to feel differently, believing that with new legislation they could force workers who wish to drink a beer at lunch to take taxis instead of drive.

Vehicle fatalities
Vehicle fatalities are at a record low per mile traveled. [Image Source:]

NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman says there's "no silver bullet" for drunk driving, but she comments:

[New punishments are] critical because impaired driving remains one of the biggest killers in the United States.  In the last 30 years, more than 440,000 people have perished in this country due to alcohol-impaired driving. What will be our legacy 30 years from now?  If we don't tackle alcohol-impaired driving now, when will we find the will to do so?

The NHTSA is still finalizing its decision on a guideline that would push states to lower the legal threshold to 0.05 BAC.  With previous guidelines all states eventually came to comply with its edict, so if it follows the NTSB's suggestions in that measure -- as it has with interlocks -- most states will eventually drop the limit.

When it comes to cut crashes further from their record lows, studies suggest that distracted driving may be a far bigger culprit in fatal traffic accidents than low levels of drugs and alcohol.  These studies found that even while mildly intoxicated or high, drivers reacted better to dangers and were able to obey the laws of the road better than those who drove in simulators while texting or doing other distracting actions (holding a phone, eating, etc.)

Josh Rose
Studies have shown that texting while driving -- still legal in some states -- may be far more dangerous that mild intoxication. [Image Source: Sony]

The agency is also suggesting that states that have not yet outlawed texting while driving to ban it.  There's also preliminary work both on the state level and at the NHTSA looking to ban other forms of distracting driving.  A new law in Calif. could ban GPS units, forcing drivers to use paper maps.  Other states and counties are considering bans on eating and drinking soft drinks while driving.

And at least one federal court has ruled that if someone texts you, and then gets in an accident, that you may be legally liable for the texter's actions.  That ruling could clears the way for those who receive texts to face massive millions in damages and prison time, if they're aware the person behind the wheel is driving and that person commits a fatal auto accident.

Sources: NHTSA [guidelines white paper], The Detroit News

"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov

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