Car Crashes and Alcohol — Do We Need to Lower the Legal Alcohol Limit?

Alcohol car crash

The legal blood alcohol concentration limit for operating a motorized vehicle is 0.08%. It’s been that way since the 1990s. That rule of 0.08% has been part of the reason why many Americans think that a level of drinking that keeps blood alcohol content below 0.08% makes it safe to drive.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. New research suggests that no less than 15% of alcohol-related road fatalities involve drivers who had blood alcohol levels below 0.08%.

For the safety of everyone who travels on our roads, is it time to bring the legal limit down to 0.00%?

Any Amount of Alcohol Consumption Creates Risk

In March of 2020, researchers Lira, Sarda, Heeren, Miller, and Naimi published a paper on this subject in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Their findings? That a considerable percentage of alcohol-related driving fatalities occurred with drunk drivers whose Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) was not above the legal limit! These are individuals who were technically not breaking any laws, yet they got into drunk driving accidents anyway.

The findings debunk the theory that keeping blood alcohol content below 0.08% makes it somehow safe to get behind the wheel of a car and drive. The truth is, any degree of alcohol consumption poses some risk when attempting to operate a vehicle.

More than 600,000 motor vehicle deaths occurred between 2000 and 2015. Alcohol inebriation was a factor in about 37% of those incidents, or about 222,000 deaths. But shockingly enough, in about 15% of those 222,000 cases, the drunk driver had a blood alcohol content below 0.08%! That means between 2000 and 2015, about 33,300 people died in drunk driving accidents where the driver was not over the legal drinking limit.

The study’s lead investigator, Dr. Timothy Naimi, commented on the findings in a U.S.News article: “Our study challenges the popular misconception that alcohol-involved crashes primarily affect drunk drivers, or that BACs below the legal limit don’t matter. Lower-alcohol crashes have been underestimated as a public health problem. Our research suggests that stringent alcohol policies reduce the likelihood of fatal accidents involving drivers with all levels of alcohol blood concentration.”

While the initial findings of the study were grim, there was some good news, too. According to the data, states which adopted more restrictive alcohol policies during the study period were associated with a 9% decrease in the likelihood of an alcohol-related crash.

In the last few years, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have encouraged federal and state governments to reduce the legal BAC from 0.08% to 0.05%. Utah has already done this. In 2018, Utah became the first state to make the change. The result? Utah has one of the lowest drunk driving rates in the nation.

It’s also worth mentioning that, on an international level, countries that have adopted a nationwide 0.05% BAC limit have also seen a drop in alcohol-related driving fatalities.

Should the Legal Limit be Brought Down to 0.00?

The data brings about a simple question. Should the legal limit be brought down to 0.00% blood alcohol content? Absolutely. There is considerable evidence that any level of alcohol consumption impairs reaction time and coordination, all of which inhibit an individual’s ability to operate a vehicle. Why is any degree of alcohol-impaired drinking acceptable, if any amount of drinking creates a risk? If lives could be saved by making it illegal to drink any amount of alcohol and then drive, wouldn’t that be a worthwhile endeavor?

“It further argues for the need to lower the limit to 0.05% or even 0.03% to reduce injuries and death.”

Dr. Robert Glatter is an emergency physician at Lenox Hospital in New York City. He was not involved in the research cited earlier, but he was also quoted in the U.S.News article cited above. He said that the investigation “…provides ample evidence that impairment occurs well below the legal limit, putting other drivers and pedestrians also at high risk for serious injury and death. It further argues for the need to lower the limit to 0.05% or even 0.03% to reduce injuries and death. The bottom line is that if you drink any amount of alcohol, you should not be behind the wheel.”

A man refuses to drink

There’s a great deal of truth in that statement. There is no benefit or value in drinking any amount of alcohol and then driving. Yet there is considerable risk. Most of the conversation on drinking and driving revolves around the legal limit of 0.08% BAC. However, just one drink begins to alter reaction time and coordination, and actual impairment can start with a blood alcohol content as low as 0.03%. There is simply no excuse not to lower the legal limit.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Not everyone who consumes alcohol has a drinking problem. But at the same time, there is no health benefit in drinking, and there is never a good reason to drink too much. And for a considerable percentage of those who drink, they do drink to excess.

Once an individual begins drinking too much, it can be challenging to curb that habit and cease consumption. And the longer the trend goes on, the more difficult it is to stop. That’s why, if you know someone who is struggling with an addiction to alcohol or who seems to be consuming so much alcohol that it’s negatively affecting their lives or the lives of those around them, the priority has to be on getting them help as soon as possible.

Every day, dozens of people die in drunk driving accidents just in the United States alone. And that’s just drunk driving, not including other alcohol-related fatalities. Don’t let your loved one become another statistic. And don’t let them be the cause of another family’s loss.

Narconon offers a unique treatment program with proven success at helping alcohol addicts break free from both the physical and the psychological aspects of addiction. The goal is an alcohol-free life, and that goal is attained by hundreds of Narconon graduates every year. Contact Narconon today and get your loved one into treatment as soon as possible.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, MCAP LADC, RAS



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.