To drink or not to drink: Norwegian versus American DUI laws

Photo: Pixabay Drunk drivers are as much as 380 times more likely to be in a fatal traffic accident.

Photo: Pixabay
Drunk drivers are as much as 380 times more likely to be in a fatal traffic accident.

Heidi Håvan Grosch
Sparbu, Norway

I will admit that I have had one glass of wine with dinner when out with friends and then driven home. In the U.S. one doesn’t think twice about doing this, but in Norway it is a different story. Here there is an almost zero tolerance for drinking and driving, in part because the accepted blood alcohol level (0.2% or .02) is so low and the penalties high. That is not to say Norwegians drink less than Americans, in fact some might argue that Norwegians drink more, but Norwegians are more likely to call a cab or have a designated driver. In the U.S. the higher blood alcohol level of 0.8% (or .08) is considered a crime, but U.S. drivers under 21 will accrue penalties with any level of alcohol in their blood while driving.

Different countries measure alcohol levels in different ways, meaning that the numbers given here are approximate when compared to each other. The common unit of measurement for assessing driver impairment from alcohol is called BAC, or blood alcohol content. In the U.S., BAC is measured by volume; in Norway (and other Scandinavian countries) BAC is measured by mass.

Statistics can be listed as percents or promille (per mille); .08% = .8 promille. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this, but have tried to compare numbers in such a way that you as a reader can yourself make a general comparison.

So how is BAC measured? After alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream it leaves the body in two ways. About 10 percent leaves through breathing, perspiration, and urine. The remainder is broken down through metabolism (www.lifeloc.com/measurement.aspx). It is also interesting to see how the body is affected at different BAC levels. At the Norwegian legal limit of .02, there is no loss of coordination and one might experience slight euphoria, perhaps even feel a bit lightheaded, less inhibited, and more relaxed. At the U.S. limit of .08 everyone experiences some form of impairment, whether slower reaction times while driving or physical limitations such as impaired speech, balance, and hearing. One might take more risks, use less self control, have poorer judgment or capacity for reason, or experience memory loss. In essence then, you think you are functioning better than you actually are.

At the extreme level for most U.S. states (between .15-.20) you will look and act drunk. At .15 BAC you are 380 times more likely to be in a fatal crash than when you are sober, and the average BAC among fatally injured drivers is 0.17, which is also the average BAC nationally for persons arrested for drunk driving in the U.S.

If you look at the table, you’ll see that in Norway if you have a blood alcohol content of .02-.05 you can lose your license for up to one year and receive a fine equal to one month’s salary (if your level is over .05 you will almost always pay at least Kr 10,000—or $1,250 at the exchange rate of 1 USD = 8 NOK). As your blood alcohol level rises, it takes longer to get your license back and your risk of jail time increases. Despite this, between 8,500 and 9,000 people fail their blood alcohol test each year. For more information you can go to a website specifically about Norwegian blood alcohol levels: www.promille.no/promillekjoring.

Penalties

In the U.S., each state determines what the specific penalties will be if caught with a BAC over their limits. If you are found to have a blood alcohol content over the permissible level in 42 states, the District of Columbia, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands, your license can immediately be taken for a period of time, although you may retain some driving privileges such as to and from work.

Penalties for extreme blood alcohol content increase. For example, in Arizona if your level is .08 you can receive a minimum of 10 days in jail and fines up to $2,000 (NOK 16,000). Statistics say that at .15 BAC (a level considered extreme) you are 380 times more likely to be in a fatal crash than you are sober. Though extreme blood alcohol content levels vary from state to state, jail time and fines increase substantially. For the current limits for each U.S. state (as of September 2015) go to: www.ghsa.org/html/stateinfo/laws/impaired_laws.html.

In Norway, 250 people are killed in traffic accidents each year, while 13,000 are injured; many of those deaths and injuries are a result of drinking and driving. The statistics in the U.S. are naturally higher as the population far exceeds that of this small Scandinavian land; according to the MADD website (www.madd.org) in 2013 in the U.S., 10,076 people died in drunk driving crashes, one every 52 minutes, while 290,000 were injured because of getting behind the wheel after drinking. Looking again at the Norwegian penalties, jail time and high fines start at .05, a blood alcohol level lower than the legal limit in the U.S. of .08. In the U.S., extreme BAC often starts at .1 to .15, which is at the high end of penalties in Norway.

The majority of those above legal BAC levels in both countries are never stopped and despite high penalties people still drink and drive. There is of course a difference between one beer or one glass of wine, absorbed by the body in about one hour, and consuming greater quantities in one sitting, but the consequences and low legal limit of .02 in Norway do make one think twice about even that one glass. Regardless of the legal limits in any country however, the more drinks you have in a concentrated period of time, the longer it will take for your body to absorb them and the longer you should wait to drive.

If anyone has comments, corrections, or more information on this topic, please feel free to send them in to the Norwegian American Weekly or to me at heidigrosch@yahoo.com with the subject line “drinking and driving comparison.”

Additional references used in this article:
• The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA): alcoholpolicy.niaaa.nih.gov/Blood_Alcohol_Concentration_Limits_Adult_Operators_of_Noncommercial_Motor_Vehicles.html

• Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_alcohol_content

• National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc.: ncadd.org/learn-about-alcohol/drinking-and-driving

• For a little humor break, here is a fun Norwegian ad about what happens when you drink and dock your boat: vimeo.com/130096900?from=outro-embed

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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