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Bill lowering blood-alcohol content threshold gains approval in state Senate

A bill that would decrease the state’s blood-alcohol content threshold for a DUI charge cleared its final floor vote in the state Senate on Tuesday and has been forwarded to the House.

The vote on Senate Bill 754, which would lower the blood-alcohol content for drunken driving from 0.08% to 0.05%, was 21 ayes and four noes.

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The no votes were Sen. Kurt Fevella of Oahu, the chamber’s only Republican, and three Oahu Democrats — Sens. Donna Mercado Kim, Michelle Kidani and Gil Riviere.

All four Big Island senators voted in favor of the measure, which was introduced by Sen. Chris Lee, an Oahu Democrat, with Sen. Laura Acasio of Hilo casting the Senate’s only aye vote with reservations.

“My reservations regarding this legislation related to the unfair impact it would have on people based on their weight,” Acasio said Wednesday. “A slight person could fail a breathalyzer test calibrated for a 0.05% blood alcohol limit after having a single glass of wine, while people of greater weight could drink 2.5 glasses of the same alcoholic beverage and not fail it.”

The American Beverage Institute — a national restaurant trade association — was quick to release a statement condemning the Senate’s passage of the legislation, calling the vote “a gut punch to the state’s hospitality and tourism industries, and … a poorly targeted approach to improving traffic safety.”

“Hotels and restaurants are already struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic,” the ABI release said. “Making criminals out of responsible Hawaii residents and tourists will only make a rebound more challenging. Many people can reach a 0.05% BAC (blood alcohol content) after consuming little more than a single drink — a level at which research shows they are substantially less impaired than when talking on a hands-free cellphone. Hardly a level of impairment to warrant going to jail or paying thousands of dollars in fines and increased insurance premiums.”

Noting Utah is the only state in the U.S. currently with such a restrictive drunken driving law, the organization urged House members to “consider the evidence before agreeing to criminalize behavior that is the current law in 49 states.”

Four other organizations or individuals submitted written testimony opposing the measure to the Senate Judiciary Committee, including the Hawaii Craft Brewers Guild, which testified the proposed limit of 0.05% BAC is “so low that even a conscientious person that does not over consume would now be over the legal limits set by this legislation, resulting in harsh consequences.”

“The majority of alcohol-related traffic fatalities involve a driver with a BAC of 0.15% or above, three times of that 0.05%,” HCBG’s Cindy Goldstein testified.

A statistical analysis of 2010 fatal automobile crashes involving a drunken driver released in 2012 by the National Highway Safety Administration found that the blood-alcohol content of the driver in 7,145 fatal crashes, or 70%, was 0.15% or above, while 3,003 of the drivers, or 30%, had a BAC of 0.08%-0.14%.

Also opposed to the bill is the state Office of the Public Defender, which testified the impairment level of 0.05% BAC “simply 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.”

Fifteen organizations or individuals submitted written testimony in support of the measure, including two individuals who urged legislators to amend the bill to the language of House Bill 1999, which died in last year’s legislative session. That bill would have criminalized any measurable amount of alcohol in a driver’s blood system.

Organizations submitting written testimony in support of SB 754 include Mothers Against Drunk Driving Hawaii, Hawaii Alcohol Policy Alliance, National Safety Council, the Maui County Council and the Honolulu, Maui and Hawaii police departments.

Hawaii Police Department Chief Paul Ferreira said alcohol-impaired driving “has been a factor in approximately 31% of all traffic fatalities and critical collisions in Hawaii County.”

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“The reduction of blood and breath alcohol levels will help make our roads safer by identifying unsafe levels of intoxication, allowing for efficient enforcement and prevent driving while intoxication,” Ferreira said.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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