Wash. sheriffs, police chiefs support bill that may lower BAC limit for drivers
"The goal of lowering the BAC is to hopefully make people think twice about driving when they've been drinking at all," Sgt. Wes Rasmussen said
By Kate Smith
YAKIMA VALLEY, Wash. — A bill proposed in the Legislature would lower the blood alcohol concentration limit for driving to 0.05% in Washington.
Yakima Valley lawmakers have reservations about Senate Bill 5002, which puts Washington in position to be the second state to restrict the legal limit for drivers to that level.
The BAC limit for most drivers across the country and in Washington is 0.08%. Utah is the only state that has further restricted the limit, lowering it to 0.05% in 2018.
Advocates for lowering the limit in Washington point to a decrease in fatal crashes recorded in Utah after the change, suggesting a similar change would help address traffic fatalities in Washington.
According to the state Traffic Safety Commission, Utah saw a nearly 20% decrease in fatal crashes in the year after the change was implemented. Serious injury crashes and total crashes also decreased for Utah in that time period.
Sen. John Lovick, D- Mill Creek, the lead sponsor for the Washington bill, sees it as a way to reduce highway deaths in Washington.
In a public hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee in January, Lovick testified that there were 745 deaths on roads in 2022. About half were DUI-related, he said. That designation includes drivers impaired by drugs, alcohol or both.
"It's very clear that drunk driving is impacting the safety of our communities," said Lovick, a former state trooper and county sheriff. "I think it's time that we do something. Drunk driving is a choice. Drunk driving collisions are preventable."
The bill has drawn support from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs and Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. Representatives from the Washington Hospitality Association and Washington Wine Institute opposed the bill at the January public hearing.
The bill moved out of the Senate Law and Justice Committee and is now being considered by the Senate Transportation Committee. If the legislation passes, the new limit would go into effect in December.
District 14's Sen. Curtis King, R- Yakima, who sits on the transportation committee, said he understands the intent of SB 5002 but doesn't believe it's the best way to reduce traffic deaths.
"I'm just not sure it's going to achieve what everyone thinks it's going to achieve," he said.
He has reservations about using data from Utah — a state that is not known for its drinking, he said — to justify the change here in Washington. The data shared with the Transportation Committee doesn't show a long-lasting effect as a result of the 0.05 change, King said.
"I think it's more of an anomaly than it is a state that you could actually rely on for data that's relevant to the state of Washington," he said.
He said he's also concerned about the bill's impact for people who may enjoy one glass of wine and think they're fine to drive home.
"We heard that just one drink starts to impair the person doing the drinking. I get all that. But we've been under the 0.08 (limit) for many, many years. It seems to be working," he said.
That leaves the challenge of addressing the high number of traffic deaths in the state, which is a serious issue, King said.
"I think the reason that we've seen this increase in highway deaths has a lot more to do with the lack of enforcement and the feeling that people aren't going to get caught, whether they're speeding or driving under the influence or whatever," he said. "There ought to be an emphasis on drinking and driving, but you've got to have the police there to enforce it."
He said securing staffing for local law enforcement agencies should be a priority.
Sen. Nikki Torres, R- Pasco, from District 15 voted against the bill as it moved out of the Senate Law and Justice Committee in January. In an interview, she said she's concerned about the bill's impact on the hospitality industry and how people in the industry are trained to notice signs of impairment.
She said she asked about the difference from 0.08% to 0.05% in a public hearing for the bill and received the answer: It depends.
"What's the difference? Is it one glass of wine, or two glasses? ... It's really difficult to tell because everybody or every person is different," she said.
She said she supported an early amendment to lower the limit to 0.06, saying that would have been a good halfway point for the hospitality industry, but she would like to see additional alcohol impairment-specific data before the 0.05% proposal comes to a vote on the Senate floor.
Police and prosecutors
Yakima County Sheriff's Office traffic Sgt. Wes Rasmussen said he supports efforts to reduce traffic deaths and hopes a lower limit would provide an incentive for people to find other ways to get home after drinking.
Rasmussen said there were about 130 DUIs in Yakima County in 2022. That number is likely lower than the actual number of impaired drivers on the roads, he said.
"Some of that is just because of resources being stretched and not being able to be as proactive as we'd like, although we're currently taking steps to remedy that," he said.
"As far as impact, really the goal of lowering the BAC is to hopefully make people think twice about driving when they've been drinking at all," he continued.
He said law enforcement officers will pay attention to the same indicators of and tests for impaired driving if the limit is lowered.
Yakima County Prosecutor Joe Brusic said he supports the legislation as a way to address serious fatality accidents and vehicular homicides.
His office was prosecuting 18 vehicular homicide cases from 2021 and 2022 as of Monday. Nearly all involved some type of substance use, he said.
"I'm willing to try anything at this point because the rate of drugs and alcohol being utilized and then people getting behind the wheel is really something we haven't seen here in many, many years," he said. "Even if it saves one life, it's worth the change."
One concern discussed in the legislative committee was the impact the change could have on caseloads. Brusic said arrest numbers did not climb after the change in Utah, though one study did point to a change in behaviors.
"That's really the true element here is that it will have an effect on some people who believe they can drink more," he said. "Some people, not everyone, but some people will adjust (their behavior) accordingly."
As for how the bill could affect the local hospitality industry, Emily Fergestrom with the Washington Wine Institute and Fortuity Cellars in Wapato said there is a concern that lowering the legal limit would harm businesses like wineries throughout the valley.
She said in an email that she supports education around responsible serving and enforcement of the current limit, but has "serious concerns that lowering the legal threshold would harm small businesses like Washington wineries that are creating opportunities for responsible, legal wine-tasting, as well as divert resources that should be used to target repeat offenders and high BAC drivers.
" Washington wineries, including ours, take the privilege given to them to serve their wine at their tasting rooms very seriously," she said. "We believe strongly in responsible serving and making sure staff are trained and understand how to not overserve customers."
Yakima Valley Tourism President John Cooper said the change might make those visiting local establishments more aware of how much they've had to drink.
"Wineries, breweries and restaurants are key attractions and important to our local and state (economy)," he said in an email statement. "We encourage our visitors to responsibly enjoy our craft beverage producers. This legislation may make them more aware of their consumption and need for a designated driver, shuttle, guide service or ride share option."
With rideshare options like Uber available at the touch of a smartphone, Rasmussen said there's no excuse for someone to get behind the wheel after drinking.
"Hopefully this will provide an incentive for people to find other means of getting home that does not involve them driving," he said.
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