Washington Lawmakers Consider Lowering Legal Limit For Drunk Driving As Death Toll Continues To Rise

Jamiesfeast – Efforts to decrease the legal limit for driving under the influence in Washington are gaining momentum as the state witnessed a rise in fatal accidents involving drivers impaired by alcohol in 2023.

Legislation is currently being considered in both the House and Senate to lower the maximum allowable blood alcohol concentration for drivers from 0.08% to 0.05%. If this legislation is passed, Washington would adopt the same stringent standard as Utah, making it the toughest in the nation.

Supporters contend that the reduced threshold will result in a decrease in fatalities, as people adjust their actions prior to operating a vehicle.

According to Rep. Brandy Donaghy, D-Snohomish County, the current situation on our roadways is dire. Every day, people are losing their lives and sustaining serious injuries. Unfortunately, a significant number of these incidents are directly linked to alcohol or other forms of intoxication while driving. Rep. Donaghy expressed these concerns during a recent hearing on House Bill 2196, which aims to address this issue by advocating for a lower limit on intoxication levels.

“I can personally attest to the fact that people of color, like myself, are disproportionately affected by these incidents,” stated Donaghy, who is a Black woman and the primary advocate for the bill. “This is a significant issue that must be taken into account.” The House Community Safety, Justice and Reentry Committee is slated to vote on the legislation on Tuesday.

According to Rep. Roger Goodman, the chair of the panel, he supports the bill but is unsure if there will be sufficient support to move it forward.

As we move across the rotunda, the conversation has progressed a little further.

Senate Bill 5002, which is sponsored by Democratic Senators John Lovick of Mill Creek and Marko Liias of Edmonds, is currently in the Rules Committee. This committee has the authority to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote. During the previous session, the bill had reached a similar stage but unfortunately did not receive a vote.

Liias and Lovick praised Donaghy for his determination in the House while they continue to gather support from their fellow colleagues.

According to Liias, the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, implementing this initiative is the most crucial task in traffic safety this year. He acknowledges that people may have doubts and that it requires a shift in culture. Nevertheless, he emphasizes the commitment to persist in this endeavor, stating that it is not a matter of if, but when it will be accomplished.

Rising toll

In 2021, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission compiled data showing that there were 674 traffic fatalities in Washington. Out of these, 345 were a result of crashes involving drivers who were impaired by alcohol.

In 2022, the number of fatalities increased to 740, with 389 of them attributed to impaired drivers. Preliminary estimates for 2023 indicate that the death toll exceeded 800, with half of the fatalities being linked to drivers under the influence of alcohol.

In December, the commission presented a report to lawmakers, urging them to give serious consideration to lowering the limit and granting authorization for sobriety checkpoints.

According to Shelly Baldwin, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, a reduction in speed by just 0.05 can have a significant impact on saving lives. This is largely due to the fact that people tend to modify their behavior when there is a change in speed limit.

The lower legal limit is set to be implemented on July 1, 2025, as per the legislation.

According to Tao Kwan-Gett, the chief science officer for the Washington Department of Health, it is unlikely for someone to exceed the acceptable limit by having a few beers after work or a couple of glasses of wine with dinner.

According to the testimony provided to the committee, an average 170-pound man would need to consume at least four drinks within a two-hour period on an empty stomach in order to exceed a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05%. For a 137-pound woman, it would take approximately three drinks to reach the same BAC level.

The bill also mandates the Washington Traffic Safety Commission to implement a comprehensive public education campaign throughout the entire state. This campaign will include a mix of television, radio, and online advertisements, as well as advertisements in the leading newspapers of each county. Additionally, the campaign must cater to the nine most prominent non-English languages spoken in the state.

Governor Jay Inslee is leading the charge on this initiative, with strong support from both state and local law enforcement agencies. The National Transportation Safety Board, National Safety Council, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the state Department of Health are also backing this important effort.

During the hearing, advocates pointed out that over 100 countries, including the majority of industrialized nations, have already reduced their limits to 0.05%.

“We need to take action instead of being passive,” Inslee stated during a recent press conference. “We must not give in to defeatism when it comes to traffic fatalities.”

There’s always a ‘but’

Last week, the Washington Hospitality Association, the Washington Wine Institute, and Washington Brewers Guild expressed their opposition to the measure. Their arguments mirrored those made during the previous session on the Senate bill.

According to experts, the absence of a reliable method for detecting intoxication at the 0.05% level puts alcohol servers in a more vulnerable position. This means that they could potentially be held responsible for over-serving a customer who later gets involved in an alcohol-related accident.

Another concern is the potential decline in interest for on-site wine tasting, which could result in a decrease in sales.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that the existing legislation permits the arrest of individuals for impaired driving, even if their blood alcohol level falls below the prescribed limit. During the hearing, law enforcement officials acknowledged that officers have the authority to stop a vehicle if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that the driver may be operating under the influence of an intoxicating substance.

Trent House, a lobbyist for the Washington Hospitality Association, expressed the importance of removing individuals who drive under the influence from the roads. “It is in everyone’s interest to remove (those) driving drunk from the roadway and we support any effort we can to reduce this,” he stated. However, House also mentioned that he does not believe the bill effectively connects the dots in addressing this issue.

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