A panel of the National Research Council recommended yesterday that the secretary of transportation impose tough new federal standards for prosecuting drivers of medium and heavy trucks and of intercity buses who drink and drive.
The panel said limits on drinking and driving imposed on truckers and bus drivers should be stricter than those imposed on automobile drivers.
Although current regulations prohibit interstate drivers from drinking on the job or less than four hours before reporting to work, surveys show the rules are often ignored, the panel said.
Vigorous enforcement of a "zero blood-alcohol concentration" could save between 130 and 250 lives annually, the panel estimated.
A 1986 law, the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act, requires the Transportation Department to set up a national driver's license system for operators of buses and trucks over 10,000 pounds and to set national blood-alcohol standards under which the licenses would be suspended or revoked.
The panel, established by the council, which is the working arm of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering, was set up to advise the transportation secretary on blood-alcohol standards. It failed to reach a unanimous recommendation.
A three-quarters majority of the panel urged that truck and bus drivers automatically lose their licenses for up to 30 days if caught driving with any measurable level of alcohol in the blood. If the level reaches 0.04 percent -- less than half the limit in most state laws and the same as the limit now enforced for airline pilots and train crews -- drivers would lose their licenses for one year in a first offense. A second offense would result in permanent loss of the license.
A level of 0.04 percent could be exceeded by a 150-pound person drinking two beers on an empty stomach, the panel said. This would produce a level of 0.05 percent.
A one-quarter minority on the panel recommended that penalties not be imposed unless the blood-alcohol level was 0.10 percent or higher. This is the level enforced by most states, including Virginia. District of Columbia law holds 0.10 percent to be illegal per se but also holds a level half as high, 0.05 percent, to constitute prima facie evidence of driving while impaired. Maryland considers a level of 0.08 percent is proof of "driving under the influence" of alcohol, and 0.13 percent qualifies as "driving while intoxicated."
"There is no such thing as a safe level of alcohol consumption prior to or during operation of heavy trucks and buses," said M.W. Perrine, the panel's chairman and director of Boston University's Alcohol Research Unit.
The 14-member panel included experts from academia, government and the commercial motor industry; members worked closely with representatives of the American Trucking Association, the Teamsters union and the Independent Drivers Association.
The panel estimated that if a zero blood-alcohol level were vigorously enforced, it could save between 130 and 250 lives annually, in addition to preventing 1,700 to 3,300 injuries and 1,200 to 2,200 crashes resulting only in property damage.
Strict enforcement at the 0.10 percent level, the minority proposal, would save about half as many lives, injuries and lesser crashes.
Despite the difference on the level to be enforced, the committee agreed that the vigor of enforcement at either standard would have a greater effect on the results than the specific alcohol level.
The panel noted that truckers are not necessarily more likely to drive drunk than other drivers. National figures show that while 45 percent of all drivers in fatal crashes had been drinking, the figure for truckers is 15 percent. Because of vehicle weight, however, truck and bus crashes are about twice as likely to result in fatalities as crashes involving automobiles and light trucks.
Panel figures indicate that drivers of medium-weight and heavy trucks and buses are involved in about 5,000 fatal crashes every year in which 5,750 people are killed. Eighty percent of those killed are occupants of other cars, pedestrians and cyclists, not the commercial drivers.