Jerry Cornfield

(Washington State Standard) Efforts to lower the legal limit for driving drunk in Washington are revving up as deadly crashes involving alcohol-impaired motorists rose again in the state in 2023.

Legislation to reduce the maximum allowable blood alcohol concentration for drivers from 0.08% to 0.05% is under consideration in the House and Senate. If enacted, Washington would join Utah with the toughest standard in the nation.

Backers argue that the lower threshold will lead to fewer deaths as individuals change their behavior before getting behind the wheel.

Opponents worry it will increase the risk of liability on alcohol servers and drive down customers of bars, wineries and other hospitality businesses. Some lawmakers worry a lower threshold could result in people of color being stopped more often by cops.

“We have people dying on our roadways every single day. They’re being seriously injured every single day. Many of those injuries and deaths are directly related to alcohol or other intoxication while driving,” Rep. Brandy Donaghy, D-Snohomish County, told a House panel Thursday during a hearing on House Bill 2196, which would foment the lowering.

“I know personally, when I’ve heard of these incidents, people of color, people who look like me, are really overrepresented in the number of those people who are harmed,” said Donaghy, a Black woman and the bill’s prime sponsor. “And that is another major issue that needs to be considered.”

The House Community Safety, Justice and Reentry Committee is scheduled to vote on the legislation Tuesday.

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, the panel’s chair, backs the bill but said after the hearing that he doesn’t know if there will be enough support to advance it.

“It saves lives and reduces injuries,” he said. “It will result in behavior changes that will enhance road safety.”

Across the rotunda, the conversation is a little farther along.

Senate Bill 5002, sponsored by Democratic Sens. John Lovick of Mill Creek and Marko Liias of Edmonds, is in the Rules Committee where it can be pulled to the Senate floor for a vote. It reached a similar stage last session but did not get voted on.

Liias and Lovick lauded Donaghy for forging ahead in the House as they work on corraling support among their colleagues.

“It’s the most important thing we can do in traffic safety this year,” said Liias, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. “I know people have questions. It is a culture change. But we are going to keep at it. To me it’s not a matter of if, it is when.”

Rising toll

In 2021, Washington recorded 674 traffic fatalities of which 345 occurred in crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver, according to data compiled by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

In 2022, the figure rose to 740 fatalities with 389 linked to an impaired driver and preliminary estimates for 2023 show the death toll eclipsed 800 with alcohol-impaired drivers linked to half.

The commission, in December, delivered a report to lawmakers urging them to “seriously consider” lowering the limit and authorizing sobriety checkpoints.

“.05 will save lives. It does so mostly because people will change their behavior,” Shelly Baldwin, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, told the House committee.

Under the legislation, the lower legal limit would take effect July 1, 2025.

Typically a person would not reach the lower standard with a couple of beers after work or a glass of wine, or two, with dinner, said Tao Kwan-Gett, chief science officer for the Washington Department of Health.

It takes at least four drinks for the average 170-pound man to exceed 0.05% in two hours on an empty stomach, three drinks for a 137-pound woman, he told the committee.

The bill also directs the Washington Traffic Safety Commission to carry out a statewide public education campaign featuring television, radio, and online ads as well as advertisements in the largest newspapers in each county. And the campaign must be conducted in the nine “most significant” non-English languages spoken in the state.

Gov. Jay Inslee is behind the effort. So too are state and local law enforcement organizations, the National Transportation Safety Board, National Safety Council, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the state Department of Health.

Supporters said at Thursday’s hearing that more than 100 countries, including most industrialized countries, have already lowered their limits to 0.05%.

“We have got to have action rather than passivity,” Inslee said at a recent news conference. “We should not be defeatists when it comes to traffic fatalities.”

There’s always a ‘but’

Representatives of the Washington Hospitality Association, the Washington Wine Institute and Washington Brewers Guild opposed the measure Thursday. Their arguments echoed ones made on the Senate bill last session.

They said with no discernible way to detect intoxication at 0.05%, thousands of alcohol servers would be at greater risk of being held liable for over-serving a customer who is involved in an alcohol-related crash.

There’s also concern that interest in on-site wine tasting will decline, leading to fewer sales.

And, they point out current law allows a person to be arrested for impaired driving even if their blood alcohol level is below the legal limit. Law enforcement acknowledged in the hearing that an officer can pull over a vehicle if they suspect the driver may be under the influence of an intoxicating substance.

“It is in everyone’s interest to remove (those) driving drunk from the roadway and we support any effort we can to reduce this,” said Trent House, a lobbyist for the Washington Hospitality Association. “This bill we don’t think connects those dots.”

Rep. Darya Farivar, D-Lake City, asked how the lower threshold would be enforced and if it could result in more people getting pulled over in communities of color.

Donaghy said the bill does not alter the criteria officers use in identifying a suspected drunk driver. They are looking for specific behaviors and that won’t change, she said.

She also said it doesn’t change the criteria for alcohol servers nor make it more likely they’ll be found liable for overserving. And it should not have a “marked negative impact” on the industries, she said.

“Most of the arguments that I’ve been hearing are running along the lines of ‘Yeah, it’s not okay for people to get drunk and drive, but’,” Donaghy said. “I have a problem with that ‘but’ and I think anybody who has ever had anybody harmed by somebody who is intoxicated and driving has a problem with that ‘but’.”

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