Bill would tighten DUI limit

Peninsula law enforcement reacts to proposed legislation

By Paul Gottlieb

Special to Peninsula Daily News

OLYMPIA — The threshold for driving under the influence would be lowered July 1 from .08 percent blood alcohol content to .05 percent under proposed legislation that North Olympic Peninsula law enforcement officials weighed in on this week.

SB 5002, being reviewed by state lawmakers during the legislative session that began Jan. 9, had its first reading Jan. 9 in the Senate Committee on Law & Justice. A public hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. Monday.

If it is approved, Washington would join Utah as the only states in the U.S. with .05 as the blood-alcohol limit for DUI. All other states are .08.

“This is a good direction to go, and that’s based on a lot of research and science that goes far back,” Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith said Thursday.

Smith said passage of SB 5002 would make it easier to enforce DUI laws and make driving safer.

“This brings the legal margin closer to alcohol’s effects on people,” he said. “The law will be closer to what actually makes them unsafe.”

A lower blood-alcohol-content (BAC) limit would more accurately reflect impairment, Smith said.

A person can be impaired and found guilty of DUI and still test below .08. The same would be true for .05 if SB 5002 becomes law.

DUI arrests rely largely on hand-held breath analyzer tests, but it can take hours to obtain more accurate blood or breath machine tests that are usable in court.

Blood alcohol content can drop to below .08 by the time more accurate blood or breath machine tests are administered that are usable in court.

Hand-held devices are indicators, not proof, of blood alcohol content, Smith said.

Port Townsend Police Chief Thomas Olson said he needs to read the specifics of SB 5002.

As a former State Patrol officer, “the impact of DUIs is near and dear,” he said, adding he saw telling impacts when the state’s DUI threshold dropped from .10 to .08.

That happened New Year’s Eve, 1998.

“Lowering the level would put out more of an awareness of people and more caution for those who are drinking, that, ‘I have to drink less or I’ll be arrested,’” Olson said.

“It may well be time in our society to do that.

“It would certainly give us more work to do, at least for a while, until the message got out on the reduction of that threshold.”

A .05 limit “is pretty low,” Forks Police Chief Mike Rowley said last week during a brief interview at Forks City Hall.

“It doesn’t seem like .05 is often an inebriated driver.

“But I also think that DUI is a violent crime because it kills people, it kills families.”

Rowley was unsure if lowering the threshold is a good idea.

“We pull [a driver] over on a traffic stop, and they’re a .2 [blood alcohol content level] and the only reason we stopped them was because they had a tail light out, and we’re like, your driving was perfect.”

Clallam County Sheriff Brian King and Jefferson County Sheriff Joe Nole could not be reached for comment earlier this week.

SB 5002, sponsored by 44th District state Sen. John Lovick, a former Mill Creek state trooper, cites 2021 as the deadliest year on state roads since 2006, with 540 fatal crashes. It uses statistics in the Safety Administration study to buttress the argument for a .05 blood alcohol content level.

Half of serious and fatal crashes are caused by driver impairment from alcohol and drugs, and driver-impaired crashes surged by 31.3 percent between 2020 and 2021, according to SB 5002.

The THC limit would remain at 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood drawn under the new law.

“If all states implemented a .05 blood alcohol concentration level, 538 to 1,790 lives would be saved each year, and alcohol-related fatalities would decrease by 11.1 percent overall,” the bill says.

A 180-pound person reaches .083 BAC after four drinks in an hour and 0.063 after three drinks, a drink being a 12-ounce beer, 5 ounces of wine or an ounce of liquor, according to the University of Tennessee Center of Wellbeing.

Most shot glasses hold 1.25-1.5 ounces, according to webstaurantstore.com.

A 150-pound person hits .05 after two drinks.

Former U.S. Customs agent and police officer Mike Chapman of Port Angeles, a 24th District state representative for Clallam and Jefferson counties and half of Grays Harbor County, said Lovick proposed a similar measure without success when he was a state representative.

“If law enforcement thinks it could work, it’s probably a good idea,” Chapman said, adding he wants to hear from them first, before passing judgment on SB 5002.

“If you have two drinks, you probably shouldn’t be driving.”

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended all states lower the BAC limit to .05 in 2013.

An attendant study by the National Institutes of Health determined that that virtually all drinkers’ driving performance is impaired at .05 BAC, and that at .05-.07 BAC, they are “much more likely” to be involved in a fatal crash than drivers who have not been drinking (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).

“Laboratory and test track research shows that most drivers, even experienced drinkers who typically reach BACs of 0.15 or greater, are impaired at 0.05 BAC regarding critical driving tasks,” according to the study.

Performance declines among all drinkers in braking, steering, changing lanes, judgement and divided attention at .05, with some studies reporting 30 percent-50 percent declines compared to the same drivers at .00 BAC.

“Recent studies indicate that the relative risk of being killed in a single-vehicle crash for drivers with BACs of 0.05-0.079 is at least seven times that of drivers at 0.00 BAC (no alcohol).”

According to the NIH study, the American Beverage Institute, funded by the alcohol and hospitality industries, was against the establishing the .05 BAC level, saying it criminalized responsible behavior, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving expressed “a lack of enthusiastic support.”

The DUI dividing line is .08 percent in the United Kingdom and .05 or less in 29 other European countries, according to the European Transport Safety Council.

Legislative hearings are televised on TVW, Channel 74 for Astound Cable subscribers, and are broadcast online at https://tvw.org/

The text of SB 5002 and other legislative information is at https://leg.wa.gov/

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Former Peninsula Daily News Senior Reporter Paul Gottlieb can be reached at cpaulgottlieb@gmail.

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