A bill before the Legislature that would lower Washington’s legal limit for a driver’s blood alcohol content from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent is worthy of consideration — but business concerns must not get short shrift.
State Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, is Senate Bill 5002’s primary sponsor. A former Washington State Patrol trooper and one-time sheriff of Snohomish County, Lovick maintains lowering the drunken-driving threshold will make Washington’s roads safer. According to the Associated Press, Lovick noted that more than half of the state’s 700-plus traffic fatalities last year were DUI-related.
Currently, Utah is the only state with a 0.05 DUI limit; it’s 0.08 in the rest of the country. Utah enacted the lower limit in 2019. According to a Stateline report, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that Utah’s rate of fatal crashes dropped nearly 20 percent in 2019, compared with 2016.
The report says the NHTSA noted that “more than 22 percent of those who drank alcohol in Utah indicated that they had changed their behavior once the law went into effect, such as ensuring that a sober ride was available.”
But what of businesses reliant on alcohol sales? According to a report on Utah’s law in The Hill, “Researchers said the state’s alcohol sales didn’t suffer despite the lower BAC limit, as alcohol sales and per capita consumption actually increased, as did tourism and tax revenues. Arrests for driving under the influence also did not increase markedly after the law took effect.”
According to a study reported in December 2019 in Drug and Alcohol Review, those in Scotland’s hospitality industry also were concerned when that country lowered its blood alcohol content to 0.05. But most worries did not come to fruition. “Estimates of the size of the economic impact varied from ‘a couple of pints a day’ to £300 (about $369) per week in sales.” While that doesn’t seem like a lot of money, it should be noted that bars and restaurants are running on very thin profit margins, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. Any measure that further stresses those margins demands, well, sober consideration.
Beyond monetary concerns, businesses worry that it will be difficult to distinguish when a customer has exceeded the 0.05 limit. There is “no discernible way to recognize signs of intoxication” at 0.05 percent, the Washington Hospitality Association’s Julia Gorton said in opposing Lovick’s bill.
Dovetailing with SB 5002 is Senate Bill 5032 from Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, that would crack down on repeat DUI offenders. This is the third year Padden has pushed his legislation, which passed the Senate in both 2021 and 2022 only to die in the House.
SB 5032 would expand the period for reviewing prior convictions of impaired driving from the 10 years currently allowed under state law to 15 years. It would also increase the penalty from a gross misdemeanor to a felony for anyone who has three or more DUI offenses within the “lookback” period.
Padden said in testimony in support of the bill that repeat impaired-driving offenders commit most of the vehicular homicides and vehicular assaults in the state. “This is a measure to try to prevent those horrible, senseless crimes,” he said.
Any measures that deter impaired driving and help make Washington’s roads safer deserve careful consideration. But steps must also be taken to ensure the state’s businesses reliant on alcohol aren’t stuck with the tab.