Lawmakers debate lowering DUI threshold

  • Lee

  • McNamee

A bill in the state Senate to lower the blood-alcohol limit for impaired driving has cleared one committee and will be heard by its second committee today.

Senate Bill 754 would reduce the blood-alcohol content threshold for being arrested and charged with driving under the influence of an intoxicant from 0.08% to 0.05%.

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That translates to a decrease from 0.08 grams per 100 milliliters of blood to 0.05 grams of alcohol. For a breathalyzer test, it would be a reduction from 0.08 grams of alcohol to 0.05 grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath.

The state Department of Transportation, testifying in support of SB754, said its Hawaii Drug and Alcohol Intoxicated Driving Working Group — which comprises county police and prosecutors, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Department of Health, and others — recommends reducing the current blood-alcohol content threshold.

According to the department, 30,150 drivers were arrested between 2015 and 2019 for DUI. Of them, 5,195 drivers tested between 0 and 0.079 blood-alcohol content. In 2018 and 2019, there were five fatal crashes that involved drivers having a blood-alcohol content between 0.05 and 0.07 that took the lives of five people.

“The (Drug and Alcohol Intoxicated Driving Working Group) believes that we can reduce the number of senseless motor vehicle fatalities by removing more impaired drivers from our roadways,” the department wrote.

MADD founder Carol McNamee offered support for the bill on behalf of the Hawaii Chapter, stating that according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 12,389 people were killed in alcohol-impaired crashes in the U.S. in 2019. That year, 108 fatalities were recorded on Hawaii’s roads with at least 36% determined to have been alcohol-related.

“MADD believes that adopting a .05 BAC will help save even more lives — in fact, studies suggest over 1,700 lives could be saved each year if all states enacted a .05 BAC law. A meta-analysis of all studies on lowering the blood alcohol limit found that a .05 BAC level would reduce drunk driving deaths by 11.1 percent,” McNamee wrote.

The Office of the Public Defender opposed the bill, saying the measure casts too wide a net and “will result in criminalizing the behavior of normally responsible drinkers without having an impact on reducing alcohol related fatalities.”

“Another consequence of a reduction of the BAC will be increased court congestion. In order to deal with the backlog, you will need to add judges, prosecutors and public defenders,” the Office of the Public Defender wrote.

Sen. Chris Lee, D-Oahu, chairperson of the Senate Committee on Transportation, which passed the measure after a hearing held Feb. 9, noted in his committee report that Hawaii was one of the earliest states to lower its blood-alcohol content from 0.10 to 0.08 and could benefit from an even lower threshold.

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“When Utah became the first state to lower its legal BAC limit from .08 to .05 in 2018, the state saw a nearly forty-four percent decrease in alcohol-related crashes and a seventy percent decrease in fatalities in the first year of enactment. Moreover, research shows that among drivers with a BAC between .05 to .79, which would still be below the legal BAC level allowed under current Hawaii law, the risk of being in a single-vehicle fatal crash is at least seven times higher than for drivers with no alcohol in their system,” Lee wrote. “This measure is intended to save lives … .”

The bill is up for decision making in the Judiciary committee today. If passed by the state Legislature and signed into law, the measure would take effect July 1.

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