A Chance To Save Lives

Two America West pilots made headlines last summer when they were charged with operating an aircraft while intoxicated. One registered blood alcohol content of 0.091, the other 0.084. The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits pilots from flying with a blood-alcohol level greater than 0.04.

Earlier this year trucker Douglas Lohmeyer also made headlines when he plowed into a bridge near Big Springs, Neb., and died on contact. He had methamphetamines and alcohol in his bloodstream. Like airline pilots, truckers must have a BAC of 0.04 or less to operate a commercial vehicle.

While they garner much media attention, such incidents are, thankfully, rare. The percentage of large-truck drivers involved in fatal crashes who had 0.08 or higher BAC was 1 percent in 2001. Compare that with fatal accidents involving drivers of passenger cars, light trucks and motorcycles, who were more than 20 times as likely than truckers to be intoxicated.

Few responsible truckers or airline pilots would argue with the strict limits they operate under. If an airplane crashes, hundreds of people may die. And an 80,000-pound truck driven by an intoxicated driver can cause untold chaos.

That’s why laws governing use of alcohol by commercial vehicle operators are so strict. Truckers convicted a first time for driving a commercial motor vehicle with a BAC of 0.04 or higher – or who refuse to submit to a breathalyzer test – may have their CDL suspended for one year. A trucker can even lose his CDL if he’s convicted of driving a personal vehicle while intoxicated.

The low incidence of fatal crashes involving intoxicated truckers shows such tough standards work. So why aren’t four-wheelers subject to similar laws? Most truckers think they should be. In fact, more than 70 percent of truckers who responded to an eTrucker.com poll believe the BAC level for four-wheelers should be lowered to the 0.04 with which truckers must comply.

But experts say the problem is not with the BAC level. The real issue, they say, is that the punishment for DUI is not strong enough to deter drunk driving in the first place. Even repeat offenders can use plea bargains or traffic school to avoid tougher consequences. However, with intoxicated four-wheelers responsible for 41 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities, these lax practices cannot continue.

As part of the reauthorization of the highway funding bill now before Congress, lawmakers have the opportunity to improve funding for enforcement, sobriety checkpoints and other DUI programs. They can also put pressure on states to pass tougher laws and strictly follow current sentencing standards. Let’s hope they do. Thousands of lives depend on it.