But drunks can't readThere is no safe amount of alcohol a person can drink if he or she plans to drive, says a new study. The study, “Official blame for drivers with very low blood alcohol content: there is no safe combination of drinking and driving,” finds that even a .01 blood alcohol level (BAC) can impair driving, as Sheila M. Eldred writes for Discovery News.

David Phillips, the University of California San Diego sociologist who headed the study, published his findings in the British Medical Journal’s Injury Prevention. To conduct the study, Phillips and his team analyzed 570,731 fatal auto accidents that occurred between 1994 and 2011, according to Science Daily (SD). The data came from the U.S. Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) database, SD reports.

The researchers focused on “buzzed” drivers, meaning those with a BAC of 0.01 to 0.07%, and, within this group, specifically on the “minimally” buzzed, (BAC 0.01%). They found that accident investigators are 46% more likely to “officially and solely” blame drivers with a 0.01 BAC level than those sober drivers they collide with, SD writes. A 0.01 BAC level is equivalent to having one or two drinks, depending on a person’s weight and gender, Eldred notes.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), all 50 states define driving with a BAC of 0.08 or more as a crime. In Colorado, a driver with a first DUI offense can have his or her driver’s license suspended for three months, GHSA reports, and ignition interlock devices to prevent drunk driving are “highly incentivized for all convictions.” By contrast, more than 100 countries worldwide have BAC limits set at 0.05% or below, SD writes.

SD elaborates on the findings of the new study:

The authors also find no ‘threshold effect’ — ‘no sudden transition from blameless to blamed’ at the legal limit for drunk driving. Instead, blame increases steadily and smoothly from BAC 0.01 to 0.24 percent.

Despite this evidence, ‘buzzed’ drivers are often not punished more severely than their sober counterparts. In practice, Phillips said, police, judges and the public at large treat BAC 0.08 percent as ‘a sharp, definitive, meaningful boundary,’ and do not impose severe penalties on those below the legal limit. That needs to change, Phillips said. ‘The law should reflect what official accident investigators are seeing.’

Phillips said his team appears to be the first to have done a study producing evidence that traffic accidents across the U.S. are caused by “minimally buzzed” drivers. The results of the study are unequivocal, he said: “We find no safe combination of drinking and driving — no point at which it is harmless to consume alcohol and get behind the wheel of a car.”

His team’s findings support “far greater reductions” to the legal BAC limit than the NTSB’s recommendation of 0.05, Phillips said. This study follows up on a paper Phillips published in 2011 that showed a strong correlation between buzzed driving and greater severity of accidents, SD writes. Philips’ coauthors are Rebecca Moshfegh (an undergraduate in the UC San Diego Department of Economics) and Ana Louise Sousa, a recent sociology graduate of UC San Diego, now a student a the USC Gould School of Law.

Image by topgold (Bernard Goldbach).

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