Lower DUI limit pursued as traffic fatalities rise

Bills that would lower BAC limits were introduced this year in Hawaii, North Carolina, New York and Washington.
FILE – Washington State Sen. John Lovick (D) (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Five years after Utah led the way, momentum is building in a handful of states to lower the drunk driving per se limit from .08 to .05 blood alcohol concentration.

Bills that would lower BAC limits were introduced this year in Connecticut, Hawaii, North Carolina, New York and Washington, according to tracking by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The renewed push is a response to the increase in motor vehicle fatalities in recent years after decades of declining death rates. And, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly a third of deadly crashes involve drunk drivers.

The Washington State bill is sponsored by Sen. John Lovick (D), a retired state trooper who said it would send a strong message to follow Utah’s lead and adopt a .05 limit.

“It would say that a red state like Utah and a blue state like Washington [are] saying to the community, it’s time for us to come together and look at the culture of drinking, the culture of driving,” Lovick said.

Lovick’s bill boasts bipartisan support and reached the floor of the Washington Senate, but its road ahead is uncertain.

“I’m going to have to work it very, very hard,” Lovick said.

The Washington Hospitality Association, the state’s Wine Institute and the Washington Brewers Guild all testified in opposition to the measure as it moved through the committee process. They argued it would hurt businesses and questioned whether it would improve public safety — noting that drug-positive drivers cause more fatal crashes in Washington than drunk drivers.

“[Senate Bill] 5002 does not address the number one cause of traffic fatalities,” Julia Gorton of the Hospitality Association said in her testimony.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended a decade ago that all states adopt the lower limit, but Utah is the only state so far to do so. It is the standard in multiple countries around the world.

In the U.S., .08 has been the national drunk driving standard since the early 2000s when states were prodded to lower their BAC limits from .10 to avoid losing federal highway funding. But without a similar penalty, the NTSB’s recommendation that states go to .05 has been largely ignored.

Opponents argue .05 is an unreasonably low threshold that will ensnare people who are not intoxicated or a danger to others. But even at that level NHTSA says people start to show signs of impaired judgment and reduced coordination.

The effects in Utah have been watched closely since it adopted the change in 2018.

A February 2022 NHTSA study found that after Utah lowered its BAC limit, more drivers arranged a ride home after drinking and fatal crashes declined. Last year, Utah recorded 12 fewer road fatalities than in 2021.

By contrast, in 2022 Washington State experienced its highest number of roadway deaths since 1990, prompting Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste to endorse the .05 BAC standard last month.

“The goal of this bill is not to increase the number of DUI arrests but to remind and encourage people to avoid driving after drinking and thereby save lives. This was the outcome in Utah, and we expect a similar impact in Washington State,” Batiste said in a statement accompanying the release of the 2022 death toll.

There have been multi-year efforts to lower the BAC limit to .05 in at least a few states, including Washington, New York and Hawaii.

In New York, bills have been introduced since at least 2013 and supporters are once again trying this year. A news conference earlier this month in Albany with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other advocates sought to bring renewed attention to the effort.

“Impaired driving leads to tragedy every single day on our roads and we want to make our roads safer so no other family has to endure this 100% preventable loss,” said Alisa McMorris, who lost her 12-year-old son to a drunk driver in 2018.

The bills this year are sponsored by Sen. John Liu (D) and Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon (D).

“If people have two drinks instead of three, we’re all going to be safer and that’s what this is all about,” Simon told Pluribus News.

Liu, who has carried the bill in previous years, said he feels more confident of passage this year, in part because of support from New York City Mayor Eric Adams’s administration.

“My argument to my colleagues is it’s going to happen, it’s a matter of whether we want to be last or we want to be leading this effort,” Liu said.

The New York proposal would also lower the threshold for aggravated driving while intoxicated from the current .18 BAC to .12.

According to NTSB tracking, just 10 states have considered .05 legislation since the 2013 recommendation was first made.

North Carolina was among the 40 states that had not until this month when state Rep. Mike Clampitt (R), a retired Charlotte Fire Department captain and member of a regional DWI taskforce, introduced a BAC-lowering bill.

“North Carolina’s seemingly having an epidemic of impaired drivers,” Clampitt said. “We need to take a strong foothold going forward to let drivers know they need to be accountable for their actions and this is one way to do that.”

*This story was updated on Feb. 24 to add Connecticut to the list of states where .05 BAC bills have been introduced this year.