Imagine having a drink with dinner at a restaurant only to be pulled over on the way home and slapped with a DUI. That could happen under a proposed plan to toughen the drunk driving laws across the country, and it has restaurateurs alarmed.
The National Transportation Safety Board wants states to make it illegal to drive with a blood-alcohol content level above 0.05. Currently all U.S. states set the limit at 0.08. For some people, the lower level could mean no more than a glass of wine.
"It would have a devastating impact on the restaurant industry," said Sarah Longwell, the managing director of the American Beverage Institute.
With a limit as low as 0.05, social drinkers would be the ones most likely to cut back when they go out to eat, she said. "You basically take away a part of the experience of dining out. When you take that element away, you take away some of the magic, the ambiance of a night out," Longwell said.
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"It could have a chilling effect on sales," said Paul Gatza, the director of the Brewers Association, a trade group that represents small American brewers. For restaurants that serve alcohol, beer sales generally account for about 10 to 20 percent of their revenue while wine and spirits make up another 10 to 20 percent, Gatza said.
The whole hospitality industry will take a hit, Longwell said. "It impacts servers, bartenders, suppliers, " Longwell said.
The new blood-alcohol proposal is based on research that shows impairment begins with the first drink. "The research clearly shows that drivers with a BAC above 0.05 are impaired and at a significantly greater risk of being involved in a crash where someone is killed or injured," NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said Tuesday in announcing the proposal.
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More than 100 countries already have BAC limits at 0.05 or lower, according to the NTSB.
The NTSB is targeting the annual rate of 10,000 fatalities caused by drunk drivers, but reducing the blood alcohol level fails to impact the heavy drinkers who drive above the 0.15 percent level and who are responsible for over 70 percent of drunk-driving fatalities, according to American Beverage Institute numbers. "It will have a tremendous impact on the moderate social drinker and almost no impact on the hard-core drinkers," Longwell said.
The Distilled Spirits Council echoed that sentiment. "We join with other organizations, including those engaged in traffic safety, in maintaining our strong support for the strict enforcement of the .08 BAC level and continuing the fight against hardcore drunk drivers. Progress has been made in decreasing alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Reducing the BAC level will not be an effective strategy," the council said in a statement.
Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving said Tuesday it appreciates the NTSB's attention to the issue, but will keep its own advocacy focused on its Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving, which backs the current .08 limit, calls for high-profile law enforcement and in-car breathalyzers for offenders.
One sector the new level would help is retail sales of alcohol, said Libby Bierman, an analyst at Sageworks, a private-company data expert firm. "It might encourage people to drink at home or pick up something and take to a friend's house," she said.
Beer, wine and liquor store profits have been on the upswing since 2009, according to the Sageworks data collected from private companies across the U.S. "This whole industry has always done well, even during the recession," Bierman said.
Overall, the private beer, wine and liquor stores never dipped into the red like many other industries during the worst of the recession. They posted a 0.87 percent net profit margin in 2009 and that climbed to 2.88 percent for 2012, according to Sageworks' numbers.
The NTSB plan was proposed Tuesday along with other enforcement measures including the use of in-vehicle drunk-detection technology and targeting of repeat offenders. States have the power to set their own blood-alcohol limits, which have all remained at .08 since 2004. The NTSB first issued the .08 recommendation in 1982. The amount of alcohol required for intoxication varies among individuals based on weight, tolerance and other factors.