Idaho appears headed toward lowering the drunken-driving standard from .10 percent to .08 percent blood-alcohol content after the Senate approved the change Thursday in a 27-7 vote.
The legislation easily passed the House last year, and proponents say they’re optimistic it will succeed there again and become law.
“We made it, we made it!” a jubilant Joan Brown, volunteer legislative coordinator for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said after the Senate vote. “I’m so excited.”
Brown said she figured MADD had lined up 23 votes beforehand. “Some others, I think, were swayed by the debate on the floor,” she said.
The emotional debate included arguments against the bill by Sen. Clyde Boatright, R-Rathdrum, who passed out charts to the Senate supporting his side, and a quiet statement of support from Sen. Jack Riggs, R-Coeur d’Alene, based on his experiences as an emergency-room physician.
Boatright; Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint; and Sen. Marguerite McLaughlin, D-Orofino, voted “no.” All other North Idaho senators voted “yes.”
McLaughlin, who is in her eighth term, called the vote “the most difficult decision I’ve made here.”
Keough said she, too, found the vote difficult.
The gallery was filled with 30 to 40 MADD members, and many of them have lost family members to drunken-driving accidents or have been injured or crippled themselves.
“There was somebody I knew up there whose mother had been killed,” Keough said.
“My point is that there are some other ways we could get at this issue, some other tools we could utilize,” she said.
Increasing enforcement efforts, targeting first-time offenders for diversion or other programs to prevent re-offense, and preventing pleabargains all are possible tools to combat drunken driving, Keough said.
Boatright said the percentage of fatalities involving alcohol has been declining since 1993. “I question the need for this legislation,” he said.
But other senators, reading from Boatright’s chart, noted that the number of DUIs has been increasing.
Sen. Hal Bunderson, R-Meridian, the bill’s sponsor, said 13 other states that have lowered their drunken driving standard to .08 have found that accidents, fatalities and DUI arrests all dropped.
Sen. Atwell Parry, R-Melba, the co-sponsor, said the statistics are “astounding.”
“This is one simple but effective way to bring down the absolute numbers of traffic deaths and to lower the number of people involved in drunk driving,” Parry said.
The change wouldn’t mean more drunken driving stops, he said, because the standards officers use for deciding whether someone is driving suspiciously wouldn’t change.
Bunderson said the lower blood-alcohol standard would cause “good-thinking people” to say “two drinks, that’s enough.”
“We need to have a standard that carries a higher visibility, so that it will give people pause when they drink,” he said.
Riggs, who is in his first term in the Senate, said, “Being relatively new, I’m speaking more from my past experience as a physician in the emergency room.”
Emergency rooms often test people for their alcohol level and doctors see how people behave at those levels, he said.
“Most people will feel something at .05,” he said. “At .06, .07, there may be a little influence, but most people can operate a vehicle safely.”
But, he said, “At .08, you’ve crossed that limit.”
People at that level aren’t safe on the roads, Riggs said. “I’m not against alcohol, but I really feel it is my obligation to speak for the public safety.”