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Legislature moving on tighter drunk driving laws

New blood alcohol limit law clears Senate committee

Ashley Bonus said she began her fight against impaired driving after her sister, Stacy Gammons-Ankerfelt, died in an accident in 2012. Now, she wants a new law that lowers the blood alcohol level needed to sustain an impaired driving conviction.

“I work hard to make a change for my sister. I would never want any other family to feel the pain we feel every day. So, I work really hard just to make any change I can,” Bonus said.

Bonus, now a volunteer with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), testified recently in support of Substitute Senate Bill 5002, which was forwarded to the Senate Rules Committee Feb.9.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, reduces the breath and blood alcohol concentration limit (BAC) for operating a vehicle from .08 to .05. Included are driving under the influence (DUI) of intoxicating marijuana, liquor, and other drugs. The bill’s advocates, including Gov. Jay Inslee, say the change will reduce the number of impaired driving fatalities in Washington.

Last year, 745 people died from traffic accidents in Washington, the highest number of traffic-related fatalities recorded in Washington since 1990. According to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC), about 50% of roadway fatalities are due to impaired driving.

Lovick spent 31 years serving as a state trooper and was the Snohomish County Sheriff for six years. Having previous experience dealing with drunk drivers, Lovick said he believes SSB 5002 can stop people from drinking and driving.

“I want everyone in the state to be safe and to feel safe, at home and on our streets,” Lovick said. “Drivers are not just speeding, following too closely, passing on the shoulders, and driving aggressively. It is very clear to me that drunk driving is impacting the safety of our communities, and it is time that we do something. Drunk driving is a choice.”

Utah is the only state in the country that has lowered the blood alcohol limit from 0.08 to 0.05.

Utah’s bill, sponsored by Utah Rep. Norman K. Thurston, R-Morgan, is often credited for a 19.8% decrease in fatal crashes the year after adoption. Neighboring states that did not lower the rate, (Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada) did not show the same improvement in fatal crash rates. Utah Department of Public Safety reported there was a drop in fatalities in alcohol-related accidents from 67 in 2018 to 35 in 2019.

In a telephone conversation with Thurston, he said Utah does not tolerate impaired driving and has seen a decrease in drunk drivers on Utah’s streets since they adopted a lower limit.

“This bill is more about sending a clear message about not drinking and driving,” Rep. Thurston said.

In subsequent years, however, Utah has not seen the same dramatic decrease in traffic fatalities. After the drop in 2019, fatalities skyrocketed during the 2020 pandemic.

In Utah, 320 lives were lost in 2021, the largest number of road fatalities since 2002. Of those deaths, 120 people lost their lives due to impaired driving. According to the Utah Substance Use and Mental Health Advisory Council, 1,320 people were injured in alcohol-related crashes in 2020, up 13% from 2019.

Robert Miles, Director of Utah Traffic Safety (UDOT), said the numbers aren’t conclusive concerning the long-lasting impact of reducing the BAC level from 0.08 to 0.05.

“We saw a change in behavior during the COVID years. The degree people self-medicate with alcohol and drugs have increased. The pandemic made it hard to catch that change,” Miles said.

The ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said he is still evaluating the data and he signed the committee report with “no recommendation.”

A majority of European countries have a BAC limit of 0.05%. In France, when they reduced the BAC limit to 0.05 annual number of alcohol-related accidents was reduced by one-third, according to the National Institute for Health Care Research.

Europe saw a significant impact of lowering the BAC limit and found a 4.3% reduction in fatality rates, according to Stephanie Morain, Ph.D. researcher for the American Journal of Public Health.

Inslee currently supports SB 5002 and believes that it will reduce the number of DUI accidents.

“We know this will change behavior, and it’s not intended to put more people in jail. It’s an attempt to ensure people don’t cause loss of life on our highways and be a bit more responsible,” Inslee said.

Washington’s independent wine industry and brewery owners said they were concerned about the impact a 0.05 BAC limit will have on tasting rooms. That wasn’t a concern with a higher BAC level of 0.08.

In response, lawmakers and supporters of the bill suggest people get a designated driver or order a ride service instead of getting behind the wheel.

Some organizations that testified against the bill included the Washington Hospitality Association, the Washington Brewers Guild and the Washington Wine Institute.

At the most recent public hearing, organizations such as the Washington Trucking Association, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the National Safety Council, the Washington Association for Substance Misuse and Violence Prevention (WASAVP), and the WA Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs testified in support of the bill.

If passed, the bill will take effect on Jul. 1, 2024.

“I’m hoping that we will do everything we can to convince people not to drink and drive, but if they choose to drink and drive, they will see our state legislature as the defense,” Sen. Lovick.

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