Rebecca Fisher, a petite 31-year-old, sat Tuesday on the porch of the Lawrence Street Tavern in Glens Falls with a pair of girlfriends, finishing her second post-work beer during an hour-long chat session.
The two-drink meeting could one day make Fisher and those like her criminals, though, if states institute last week’s National Transportation Safety Board recommendation to redefine driving while intoxicated, which would compel states to again lower the allowable blood alcohol content, this time from 0.08 to 0.05 percent.
“Sorry, I weigh less than 130 pounds and had a glass of wine with dinner,” she said.
Drunken driving is responsible for nearly one-third of the nation’s 32,000 annual traffic fatalities, according to NTSB data. The federal advisory panel estimated between 500 and 800 lives could be saved each year if the threshold was collectively lowered by the states.
The U.S., Canada and Iraq are among the small handful with a 0.08 threshold, while most of Europe considers 0.05 legally intoxicated.
The NTSB has no authority to mandate the change, but federal highway officials successfully drove the states to lower the BAC from 0.1 to 0.08 under the threat of withheld highway funds, though the nationwide shift took years.
New York drivers with a 0.05 BAC can already be charged with the lesser violation of driving while ability impaired.
Washington County Undersheriff John Winchell has been on the beat for more than two decades and coordinates the local DWI victim’s impact panel and Stop DWI programs.
The NTSB proposal would make the roads safer, Winchell said, but it would require that the educational and outreach programs keep pace with the change.
“Any kind of initiative like that, I think, is going to be effective to a point, but you would have to follow it up with the treatment programs as before,” Winchell said.
Although the scientific measure of alcohol in an individual’s blood is a hard-and-fast legal definition, how much liquor someone can handle is highly dependent on a person’s size, gender, tolerance and stomach contents.
Winchell recounted an instance several years ago when interviewing a victim of a crime. Police traditionally don’t take statements from intoxicated people during investigations, choosing to wait until the subject sobers up.
The man seemed cogent and relatively clear-headed, though it was obvious he had a few drinks in him, Winchell said.
“He didn’t look drunk to me, so I asked him how much he had,” Winchell said. “His answer was, ‘about a 30-pack.’ ”
Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which in the 1980s spearheaded lower BAC thresholds, lauded the NTSB for drawing attention to drunken driving, but questioned the proposal because it would take so long to implement nationwide because it would be state-by-state.
The organization said in a statement last week that its focus remains on other measures, especially ignition interlock devices for offenders and the construction of vehicles that won’t start for anyone who is intoxicated.
Saratoga County averages 1,100 DWI cases every year, with an average BAC of 0.13, and 11 open cases now involve death or injury, according to District Attorney Jim Murphy.
Injury cases where the accused has a measured BAC of 0.07 have been especially difficult to win because it’s in the gray area between DWI and DWAI, Murphy said.
“If it saves one life or prevents one injury, I’m in favor of it,” he said. “I’ve sat across the table from too many families who have had a loved one hurt or killed in my 23 years.”
The change would make criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens who had a couple of glasses of wine with dinner, according to John Carr, owner of the Adirondack Pub and Brewery in Lake George.
Carr said the federal proposal is simply a more sophisticated effort by the temperance movement, which drove the short-lived national prohibition of the early 20th century, to criminalise alcohol.
“Prohibition didn’t end with the 21st Amendment. Anyone with a liquor license knows there’s a lot of people (in government) that don’t want people drinking at all,” Carr said. “I think basically everyone who’s ever gone out to a restaurant has driven home over .05. That means we’re all criminals.”
Fisher, the Glens falls woman who had two beers in an hour Tuesday evening, would likely be over the 0.05 threshold, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
A 120-pound woman who had two drinks in an hour will generally have a BAC of 0.06, the university’s data states. It would take three drinks in that same hour for a 180-pound man to reach the 0.05 threshold.
A single microbrewed beer, like Carr’s, with higher alcohol content and taller glasses, could be enough to push a small woman over the 0.05 limit.
Lowering the threshold further would be another governmental strike against the hospitality industry, said Nancy Bambara, operations manager for DZ Restaurants Inc., which has Chianti Il Restorante and Forno Bistro in Saratoga Springs in its stable.
“In all reality, what they’re trying to lower it to is a point where people aren’t even impaired,” Bambara said. “It’s foolish.”
The vast majority of customers drink a couple of glasses of wine at the DZ restaurants, Bambara said, and often come with a designated driver.
Rob Lorenaldesi, from Long Island, waited Tuesday outside of Bistro Tallulah in Glens Falls, where he was scheduled for a dinner meeting with business associates.
Lorenaldesi typically prefers the tannic body of a cabernet sauvignon over dinner.
“Enough’s enough,” he said of the NTSB proposal. “People are pretty responsible now.”
Lorenaldesi’s three young-adult daughters always have designated drivers, he said.
It’s the generations that are accustomed to a few drinks over dinner that would likely be most impacted if the state’s BAC was again lowered, he said.
Upstate residents rely on vehicles for transportation substantially more than downstate New Yorkers, because of a relative lack of public transportation.
Hilary DiLorento, a New York City woman who had a few drinks with friends Tuesday at Davidson Brothers Brewery in Glens Falls, said the NTSB proposal isn’t garnering much attention in the subway-dependent mega-city.
“It’s not on anybody’s radar,” she said.
But Jennifer Yates, a Glens Falls woman who was sharing the after-work drink with Fisher, said law enforcement officials and safety advocates should focus on the highly intoxicated and repeat offenders instead of continually lowering the definition of intoxication.
“It’s not going to make a difference,” she said. “Most people who cause the problems are way over that.”
The decision ultimately falls to Albany.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday during a cabinet meeting that his office is “studying” the issue. The change wouldn’t be a “major shift” in New York because 0.05 can already result in a DWIA ticket, Cuomo noted.
Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, said he would only support the change if science can prove it would make the roads safer.
“I want to see how much good it will do,” Stec said. “Is it .08? I don’t know what .08 feels like versus .06.”