Not much alcohol is needed to be in fatal car accident

I vividly remember an emergency room encounter in summer 1980.

Imagine four lanes of a main street, plus two parking lanes – a total of six. One early a.m., there was zero traffic, save one vehicle traveling east. A solitary vehicle was parked, facing the same direction. The moving vehicle sideswiped the parked car, which just happened to be a police cruiser. The ensuing pursuit was a mere half-mile as the totally alcohol-saturated occupants went into a ditch, not a curve in sight.

Unable to even speak, the “driver” could not sit upright, falling forward, backward, sideways on the stretcher – no steering wheel to support him! Both driver and passenger had a blood-alcohol concentration, or BAC, more than 0.500, but not the highest (0.702) I have ever seen. “Social drinkers” these two were not. Recently, determining what the lowest legal BAC should be has received wide media attention.

In the 1980s, states began lowering legal BAC limits from 0.1 to 0.08. Now, the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended states lower their legal limits to 0.05, as has most of the European Union. While there has been a decline in U.S. total highway and alcohol-related fatalities in the last several decades, alcohol-related deaths have lately persisted at about 10,000 per year – thus the recommendation for the 0.05.

Recent analysis of increasing risk of accidents with rising BACs deserves mention. The relationship appears to be not linear but exponential. If BAC rises to 0.05, the risk of a motor vehicle accident doubles. When BAC reaches 0.10, risk increases six times. At 0.15, risk increases 25 times. Research suggests the lower limit, 0.05, would save lives. Colorado has limits of both 0.05 and 0.08 for DWAI (driving while ability impaired) and DUI (driving under the influence). Despite the 0.05 limit, alcohol-related fatalities in Colorado have recently risen, and we are only average for the 50 states.

Recidivist drivers may be part of the problem: If they haven’t learned from the first arrest, they probably aren’t going to. Youth is a major risk factor for highway death: At all BAC levels, younger drivers are at greater risk for an accident than older drivers. And, as recently as 2010, one study reported that 22 percent of drivers aged 15 to 20 involved in fatal motor vehicle-crashes were drinking. Drinking! Also, 56 percent of drivers aged 15 to 20 killed in motor-vehicle crashes after drinking and driving were not wearing a seat belt.

Our older daughter was not yet home, and I was asleep for only minutes when a state trooper called: “We have a fatal.” My heart stopped until I realized it was a medical-examiner call. Two boys had dropped in on an alcohol-free group, my daughter included. The driver was drunk. His passenger, Robby, was cold sober and the girls tried to allow him to drive. The drunk sullenly refused, pushing his way to the vehicle. The girls made Robby fasten his seat belt.

Barely a mile away, Robby received the full impact of a 3-foot-diameter maple. From the scene, the town cop and I went to inform the single mom of her only child’s death.

Talk with your kids. Even with 0.05, we should do better. Dr. Fraser Houston is a retired emergency room physician who worked at area hospitals after moving to Southwest Colorado from New Hampshire in 1990.

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