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NTSB recommends lowering blood alcohol level that constitutes drunken driving

John Giles/PA wire file

The National Transportation Safety Bureau recommended Tuesday to lower the legal blood-alcohol content level to .05 from .08.

WASHINGTON – The National Transportation Safety Board voted to recommend to states that they lower the blood-alcohol content that constitutes drunken driving.

Currently, all 50 states have set a BAC level of .08, reflecting the percentage of alcohol, by volume, in the blood. If a driver is found to have a BAC level of .08 or above, he or she is subject to arrest and prosecution.  

The National Transportation Safety Board is advising states to lower the Blood Alcohol Level that defines drunk driving from .08 to .05, which they say is the level at which many drivers' vision can be affected. NBC's Tom Costello reports.

The NTSB recommends dropping that to a BAC level of .05. 

Each year, nearly 10,000 people die in alcohol-related traffic accidents and 170,000 are injured, according to the NTSB. While that’s a big improvement from the 20,000 who died in alcohol-related accidents 30 years ago, it remains a consistent threat to public safety. 

Studies show that each year, roughly 4 million people admit to driving while under the influence of alcohol.

The recommendation prompted immediate criticism from restaurant trade groups.

"This recommendation is ludicrous," said Sarah Longwell, managing director of American Beverage Institute. "Moving from 0.08 to 0.05 would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior.

"Further restricting the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to stop hardcore drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel."

The United States, Canada and Iraq are among a small handful of countries that have set the BAC level at .08. Most countries in Europe, including Russia, most of South America and Australia, have set BAC levels at .05 to constitute drunken driving.

When Australia dropped its BAC level from .08 to .05, provinces reported a 5-18 percent drop in traffic fatalities.

Karolyn Nunnallee, a mother who lost her daughter Patty in the deadliest drunk-driving accident in in 1988 and served as a president of MADD, speaks ahead of the 25 anniversary of the Carrollton, Ky., bus collision.

The NTSB reports that at .05 BAC, some drivers begin having difficulties with depth perception and other visual functions.  At .07, cognitive abilities become impaired. 

At .05 BAC, the risk of having an accident increases by 39 percent. At .08 BAC, the risk of having an accident increases by more than 100 percent.

The NTSB believes that if all 50 states changed their standard to .05, nearly 1,000 lives could be saved each year.  It is also considering other steps to help bring down the death rates on America’s roads.

The NTSB is an investigative agency that advocates on behalf of safety issues.  It has no legal authority to order any change to state or federal law. It would be up to individual states whether to accept the NTSB’s recommendation, and up to the Department of Transportation whether to endorse the recommendations.

The last move from .10 to .08 BAC levels took 21 years for each state to implement.

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