Study: “Minimally Buzzed” Drivers Often Cause Fatal Crashes

A new study from UC San Diego shows that drivers with even a 0.01 BAC are linked to fatal crashes and more often blamed in accidents

A new study on traffic accidents released by UC San Diego Thursday reveals that “minimally buzzed” drivers – including those with a very low 0.01 blood-alcohol level, well below the legal limit of 0.08 – are often to blame for fatal car crashes.

UC San Diego sociologist David Phillips, Ph.D., led the study, now published in the British Medical Journal group’s "Injury Prevention.”

After examining 570,731 fatal collisions that took place from 1994 to 2011, Phillips says the research shows drinking and driving at any blood-alcohol level is dangerous and associated with greater accident severity, causing many implications for driver, passengers and the legal system.

“There is no blood-alcohol content so low that it is safe to drive,” Phillips told NBC 7 San Diego.

Focusing particularly on “minimally buzzed” and “buzzed drivers” with a BAC of 0.01 to 0.07 percent, researchers found that drivers with a BAC of 0.01 are 46 percent more likely to be solely blamed for car crashes by accident investigators than the sober drivers they collide with.

The authors of the study also find “no sudden transition from blameless to blamed” at the legal limit for drunk driving. Instead, the research shows the blame for accidents increases steadily from drivers with a BAC of 0.01 to 0.24 percent.

Phillips says it is common knowledge that drivers do worse on tests in the lab when they drink a beer or glass of wine. However, his study also shows that having just one drink, no matter how small, has real impact on traffic collisions.

Given the data, Phillips argues that the BAC legal limit needs to be lowered to reflect what accident investigators are seeing on the roadways. The study shows that more than 100 countries around the world have their limits set at 0.05.

“I would say if public policy were determine entirely by scientific evidence, the data justifies not having any alcohol in you at all while driving,” he said. “But, since public policy is determined not just by scientific data, but by cultural factors, the compromise position may be to lower blood-alcohol content to 0.05 like most of Europe.”

Phillips says the study supports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s campaign that “buzzed driving is drunk driving.”

Although federal agencies recommend reducing the legal BAC limit below 0.08 percent, Phillips said there has been little research of this kind on the dangers of “minimally buzzed” drinking and driving.

The study co-authors include UC San Diego undergraduate student Rebecca Moshfegh and Ana Luisa Sousa, a recent sociology graduate of UC San Diego, currently at the USC Gould School of Law.

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