correction: An earlier version of this essay misstated the name of an organization that criticized a proposal to lower the blood alcohol concentration limit. It was the American Beverage Institute. This version has been updated.
Marcus Kowal, a former mixed martial arts fighter, is co-founder of the Liam’s Life Foundation.
Sept. 12 marks two years since the funeral of my 15-month-old son, Liam. He had been in a stroller, being pushed through a pedestrian crosswalk in suburban Los Angeles by my sister-in-law, who was 15 years old at the time. She had done everything right: pressed the button, waited for the lights to change and then started walking. Other cars stopped, but one didn’t. Police later estimated that the car was going 35 to 40 mph as it smashed into Liam and my sister-in-law. The car was driven by a 72-year-old woman. She was drunk and behind the wheel at 3:30 in the afternoon.
Liam and my sister-in-law were both rushed, unconscious, to the hospital. She survived, and began a slow physical recovery from her injuries and even slower emotional recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt. Liam’s injuries were devastating. Doctors soon told my wife, Mishel, and me that our son was brain-dead. We had to make the devastating decision to take him off life support.
Since that day, I have learned a lot. I have learned about the horrible pain of losing a child, especially when that loss was preventable. Liam’s life was not taken by disease or natural disaster. His life was stolen by someone who chose to get behind the wheel of a car when drunk. The driver later pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to six years in prison. She had failed a field sobriety test, authorities said, which meant her blood alcohol concentration level was in excess of the 0.08 legal limit. But because there was no trial, her blood alcohol concentration level was not revealed by prosecutors.
I have learned that Liam was one of the 10,497 people whose lives were taken by drunk drivers in the United States in 2016.
I have also learned that every U.S. state sets the blood alcohol concentration limit at 0.08 — and that if the limit were lowered to 0.05, countless lives would be saved. Study after study has shown the effect of lowering the limit, including research led by Steven Teutsch at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and by James C. Fell, a principal research scientist at the social-science institute NORC at the University of Chicago. States once set the limit at 0.10 but, over the past few decades, have lowered it to 0.08, resulting in an approximately 10 percent decline in alcohol-related traffic fatalities, Fell’s research found, translating into 24,868 lives saved between 1983 and 2014.
Support for lowering blood alcohol limits has come from institutions including the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Transportation Safety Board and the American Medical Association. Two years ago, Mishel and I launched the Liam’s Life Foundation and joined the fight.
Lowering the blood alcohol limit doesn’t affect how much people drink, as Fell’s research indicates, but it does affect their decisions about driving. Several European countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, with populations that consume significantly more alcohol than Americans per capita, have blood alcohol limits of 0.05 or lower, yet the number of drunken-driving fatalities per capita is significantly below that in the United States.
One reason for the difference is that elsewhere, even in countries with strong drinking cultures, drunken driving often has a much worse social stigma than in the United States — you just don’t do it. My home country of Sweden sets the blood alcohol limit at 0.02. People enjoy drinking; fines for driving under the influence are hefty and the punishments harsh, but more important, drunken driving is just not socially acceptable.
The movement to lower the blood alcohol limit in the United States has been difficult. I believe there are two reasons that politicians across the country are reluctant to lend their support. One is the influence of lobbying by the alcohol and hospitality industries. A proposal to lower Utah’s blood alcohol limit to 0.05 in 2013, for instance, was derided by the American Beverage Institute as “ridiculous” and “criminalizing perfectly responsible behavior.” But perhaps an even bigger and more disheartening reason for this resistance is that in America, we as a culture are too tolerant of drunken driving — not just among friends but even in the legal system, as drivers can be charged with multiple DUIs without suffering significant penalties or public shame.
We’ll never be able to eliminate drunken driving completely — people will always break the law — but reducing it significantly, and saving countless lives, is entirely within our reach. It requires political courage and a cultural shift toward responsibility and caring for others.
The writer, a former mixed martial arts fighter, is co-founder of the Liam’s Life Foundation.