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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Second time’s the charm? Washington Legislature again considers lowering blood alcohol concentration to 0.05

OLYMPIA – Grieving families joined police and prosecutors Thursday to urge state lawmakers to toughen drunken driving laws by lowering legal blood alcohol limits.

“Most of the arguments that I’ve been hearing are running along the lines of ‘Yeah it’s not OK for people to get drunk and drive, but …’ and I have a problem with that ‘but,’ ” prime sponsor Rep. Brandy Donaghy, D-Mill Creek, said regarding her proposed bill that would lower the breath or BAC limit to 0.05 from 0.08 statewide.

A similar bill failed to pass the Senate last year.

More than 800 people were killed in car crashes last year in Washington. More than half of those deaths were caused by drivers who were drunk or high on drugs. It was the highest rate Washington has had in 33 years, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Although Utah is the only state in the country that has a BAC limit of 0.05, most Western European countries, along with Australia, South Africa and other nations, have stricter thresholds than Washington. Some countries, including China and Sweden, have a BAC limit as low as 0.02.

While Washington saw record-high numbers, Finland experienced 88-year lows in driving fatalities during 2023 with BAC limits of 0.05 since the 1970s, said Mark McKechnie, spokesperson with the safety commission.

“Our goal is not to arrest our way out of this situation,” Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste testified Thursday. “Our goal is to educate. To educate citizens about the dangers of driving under the influence and the things that can create harm for themselves and others.”

A key component of this year’s bill focuses on education and awareness of impaired driving. If it passes, WTSC is required to develop a public information campaign to ensure that Washington drivers know about the BAC changes. TV, radio, online and print advertisements are to be published and translated into nine languages across the state.

“We can continue to do education, but we have to have a community norm that says we cannot drive impaired,” said Linda Thompson, executive director for the Greater Spokane Substance Abuse Council. “It’s up to each of us to save lives.”

Holding back tears, Thompson shared firsthand experience of losing her son Trevor in 1986 to an impaired driver who also seriously injured others. For more than 30 years, she has been pushing for stricter DUI laws.

The penalty for driving under the influence would stay the same if the limit is lowered to 0.05, punishable as a gross misdemeanor.

The proposal calls for the Washington State Institute for Public Policy to evaluate the effect of lowering BAC during the first two years, including the number of serious or fatal crashes, DUI arrests or adjudications, equity challenges and business effects on breweries, wineries and distilleries.

Members of the hospitality industry raised concerns that businesses and employees are liable for overserving a customer. If the BAC limit is lowered, an additional burden is placed on staff, said Trent House on behalf of the Washington Hospitality Association.

“There is no training that exists for our staff to be able to identify somebody who has reached a 0.05 level. We focus on signs of impairment, and at a 0.05 level, it’s virtually impossible to identify,” said Dan Olson, executive director for the Washington Brewers Guild.

House said that under current law, impaired drivers can be arrested and qualify as driving under the influence even if they do not reach the 0.08 limit, questioning why the limit would be raised if people are already getting arrested.

King County Prosecutor Amy Freedheim noted that fewer than 5.5% of DUI arrests in King County are for driving with a BAC lower than 0.05.

Addressing hospitality and business concerns, Donaghy said she’s working to create partnerships between ride-share companies and beverage industries to try and incentivize people to support the beverage business, but to also find a safe way home.

“I ask you to be bold, be brave. Pass this bill and save lives,” Thompson said.

The House Community Safety, Justice and Reentry Committee will hold a session to potentially pass this bill out of committee Tuesday.