Legislature debates reducing legal limit for blood alcohol level
Last updated 2/7/2024 at 2:15pm
To curb traffic fatalities, lawmakers are proposing reducing the legal limit for driving while intoxicated.
SB 5002 amends the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) for driving a motor vehicle from .08% to .05%. Typically, consuming less than one standard drink per hour maintains most individuals' BAC below .05%.
Former state trooper and primary sponsor Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, who previously served as a sergeant with a DUI emphasis patrol, called on the Legislature to enact tougher laws.
"We have just tolerated drunk driving for a long time," Lovick said. "If we had a train go off the tracks, and one person died, we would shut down that industry."
Eight hundred eighteen people died on our roads last year, with more than half of the fatalities DUI related, which is one person every single day dying in Washington because of a drunk driver, according to Lovick.
According to the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC), 32% of deaths from 2017-2021 involved drivers who tested positive for alcohol. In 2023, according to tentative projections, the number increased to 50%.
Lovick said being killed by a drunk driver should not be an accepted risk of driving on Washington's roads, which Lovick added are the most dangerous in the nation.
"Other states are looking to see what we are going to do," Lovick said. "We need to make tougher laws".
Co-sponsor of the bill Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, as Chairman of the Transportation Committee traveled to Finland this summer and learned that since 1977, Finland has maintained a BAC limit of .05, a measure that prompted locals to abstain from driving altogether when consuming alcohol.
"The single most impactful decision Finland has made to reduce fatalities over the last two generations has been to lower the BAC to .05," Liias said. "We see crashes between .05 and .08, and more fundamentally, we are just trying to change the culture. After you have 3 or 4 drinks, you become really bad at counting how many drinks you have had."
In 2017 Utah changed BAC to .05, and in 2022 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that 22.1 percent of drinkers said they altered their behavior due to the legislation. The fatality rate, measured as the number of deaths per million vehicle miles traveled (VMT), decreased by 18.3 percent.
Liias points out officers can't stop you unless you're swerving or showing signs of being impaired. While this bill may not change the number of arrests, it could change the culture of drunk driving.
"The police officer does not know your blood alcohol content until they have pulled you over," Liias said. "We should focus on enforcement. We should also remember that the people being killed right now are disproportionately from marginalized communities."
Critics say lack of enforcement is a bigger problem. Washington state is currently 50th in the nation for law enforcement officers per capita.
"You can change the laws all you want, but you are not going to have people to enforce them," Rep. Eric Robertson, (R-Sumner), said. "We need to look at who is really causing these fatality collisions. Is it the people between .05 and .07? If an officer can articulate the fact that they say the person was impaired, it does not matter what that number is."
The likelihood of a crash significantly rises for drivers with a BAC between .05 and .079. In fact, the risk of being involved in a fatal collision while driving a vehicle is at least seven times higher compared to those with a BAC of zero.
Lovick said he believes despite enforcement officer numbers this law would be enforced because of a robust public awareness campaign.
Lovick, in his previous job as a sergeant covered I-5, I-405, 522, and they advertised a zero-tolerance policy for drunk driving and in 2004 he said they did not have a single fatality in their patrol area. Talking about it and raising awareness really helped. He would tell people, "If you are drinking and you move a muscle, we are going to find you."
When asked why this bill has only garnered 12 sponsors, he said, "People hate change, but they also hate the way things are." He truly believes that this bill is going to pass this year.