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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington Legislature considers bill to lower blood alcohol limit to 0.05% for DUIs

Lights come on in the domed Legislative Building on the Washington Capitol campus as evening approaches in Olympia.  (Jim Camden/For The Spokesman-Review / For The Spokesman-Review)
By Elena Perry The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Linda Thompson has been advocating for tougher laws against drunken driving for more than 30 years.

And on Monday she was at it again, this time testifying at a state Senate hearing for a bill that would lower the blood alcohol limit for driving, citing her extensive experience as a “preventionist.” But that was not the only experience that compelled her to testify.

“Mostly, I am here being the mom of Trevor,” Thompson said.

Her 3-year-old son, Trevor, was killed in a crash with a 17-time repeat drunken driving offender in 1986.

“In the courtroom, at sentencing, a woman told our family: ‘He was going to kill someone sooner or later. Sorry about that,’ ” Thompson recalled.

Deaths like Trevor’s have persisted over the years. This year, Washington had 745 traffic fatalities, the highest in more than 30 years. Of these deaths, more than half were caused by impaired drivers.

Thompson is now president of the Washington Association of Substance Misuse and Violence Prevention, and has worked at Greater Spokane Substance Abuse Counseling.

The bill heard Monday would lower the breath or blood alcohol concentration limit for driving from 0.08% to 0.05%. Passage would make Washington the second state to have such strict limits.

“What I’m hoping is 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 (against drunken driving),” said Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, the primary sponsor of this bill.

Utah became the first state to lower their BAC limit to 0.05% in 2018. The state’s fatal crash rate fell by almost 20% the following year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Utah’s change did not have the predicted effect of a steep climb in DUI arrests. The opposite was true. In 2019, DUI arrests fell by 316 compared to the year before Utah voted to implement the change.

In the wake of the changed Utah law, supporters said drivers opted to arrange safer alternatives to getting behind the wheel, which can explain the decrease in both arrests and fatal crashes.

“Both naïve drinkers as well as very tolerant drinkers self-regulated and chose not to get in their car impaired,” said Amy Freedheim, senior deputy prosecuting attorney in King County. “(They) chose to get the Uber home or take a taxi home, chose to ensure that there is a designated driver for them to get home.”

Current Washington law says a person is guilty of a DUI if they’re driving with a blood alcohol concentration of at least 0.08%. Impaired drivers can still be charged with a DUI even if they register below a 0.08% BAC, but supporters of this bill say the current law doesn’t send a strong enough message to motorists.

Implementing legislation to lower the BAC limit to 0.05% would motivate drivers to be safe, they said, citing the Utah change.

“We have spent millions of dollars messaging to the public ‘don’t drink and drive,’ but our statutes really say otherwise. They say don’t drink a lot and drive,” said James McMahan, policy director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. “Nobody really knows how many drinks 0.08% is for them. The answer under this bill is clear: zero.”

Opponents of this bill expressed concerns over the effect it would have on liquor licensees and the beverage service industry.

When establishments overserve patrons, businesses and employees can be subject to penalties, fines and criminal citations. Employees at these establishments complete training in accordance with national standards to learn how to identify signs of intoxication at a 0.08% BAC. The proposed 0.05% BAC intoxication is much harder to discern, said Julia Gorton of the Washington Hospitality Association.

“There are no physical signs of intoxication at 0.05% BAC,” Gorton said. “This means that thousands of businesses and our employees lack the tools to adjust to the nearly 40% reduction in the threshold, but we will still be liable for that behavior.”

The bill received a public hearing Monday, but has not yet been scheduled for a vote out of committee.