The National Transportation Safety Board recommended on Tuesday that the blood-alcohol level at which motorists can still drive legally be dropped from .08 to .05, but lawmakers and authorities say the recommendation won't lead to swift changes in South Carolina.
The decision to drop the BAC limit would have to be made by the S.C. General Assembly before it becomes state law, and some local politicians said they aren't sure where they stand.
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he "would listen to both sides before forming an opinion."
"Keeping our public roads safe for drivers is a core responsibility of state government, and lawmakers should consider the NTSB's recommendation," he said. "... The food and beverage industry says the new limit is ludicrous, citing studies that show the average woman reaches that BAC after one drink and a 160-pound man reaches it after two. On the other hand, advocates for the lower limit, like MADD, challenge those studies."
State Rep. Weston Newton, R.-Bluffton, said he wanted to see the NTSB research before broaching the topic.
"I'm curious to see the data that supports their recommendation to lower the standard," he said. "I'm not privy to any information at this juncture, but I'd want to see if lowering it would promote safety and reduce drunk driving incidents and accidents. I recall the discussions to drop the limit to .08 percent had statistics that were fairly compelling."
Local authorities said Tuesday they would support the drop in the DUI limit if it produced tangible results.
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said he hadn't read the report, but was interested in reviewing the evidence the NTSB used.
"We don't want people driving impaired on any road, but I'd love to read the report and see the supporting evidence their recommendation is based on," he said. "If a law enforcement study showed that a high percentage of officers conducting DUI stops found that a person had an obvious impairment and were unable to operate their vehicle, but only had a BAC between .05 and .07 percent, it would be a good argument to get those impaired drivers off the road."
Tanner said a "fairly high percentage" of impaired drivers refuse to take a breathalyzer or DataMaster test to give a measurement of their BAC. In those cases, the person's arrest is based on officer testimony and videotape from the deputy's vehicle.
Bluffton Police Chief Joey Reynolds said the recommendation likely would create controversy, much like raising the drinking age to 21 and lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit from .10 to .08 percent did.
"We know from history that these initiatives have been successful at reducing traffic fatalities," he said.
About 100 other countries have already adopted a .05 percent legal limit, including most members of the European Union. The union set a goal to cut drunken-driving deaths in half by 2010, which it accomplished.
The number of U.S. drunken-driving fatalities has also been halved since 1982, when the NTSB recommended the drop from .10 percent to .08 percent, from 21,000 to just over 10,000, according to an Associated Press report. Those 10,000 deaths account for about a third of all highway deaths today.
"We are in strong support for any legislation that would increase the safety of our motoring public and thereby reduce traffic fatalities," Reynolds said. "When we have significant changes in statutes, we may see a spike in arrests initially, until people become acclimated to the new laws. Ideally, what the NTSB and law enforcement desires is that our motoring public voluntarily comply with the new initiative to save lives."
Frank Hamilton, site leader for the Beaufort chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the organization is "not opposed to the change" but prefers to continue pushing its three-point plan.
"It's a hard fight to change the limit, and we think our energy is placed best in supporting things like the ignition interlock device to keep repeat offenders from driving while impaired," he said.
The other two parts of MADD's three-point plan involve high-visibility law enforcement awareness events and the development of technology that would stop drivers from driving if their BAC is over the legal limit.
Hamilton said the fight to drop the legal limit to .05 likely could take longer than the 21 years it took for all 50 states to drop the legal limit to .08.
In 1998, then-President Bill Clinton said that states that passed the recommendation would receive federal highway funds, but any state that hadn't passed the change by Oct. 1, 2003, would see their funds reduced. All states complied by that date.
Davis said he hoped South Carolina would make a decision on the new recommendation before it came to that.
"We should base our decision on what's in the best interests of South Carolinians, and the federal government should not -- as it so often does -- financially blackmail the state into accepting the new standard," he said.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.