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As Washington lawmakers pass on lowering limits for driving drunk, a borrowed breath tester changed at least one mind

By Ellen Dennis, The Spokesman-Review
Published: March 19, 2024, 7:38am

OLYMPIA — After another year of debate, Washington lawmakers again set aside a proposal to lower the legal limit for driving drunk.

But at least one senator changed his mind from undecided to supportive after conducting what he described as a “sort of” investigation to see if it would only take a drink to reach the proposed limit. For him and other lawmakers who participated, it didn’t.

A group of lawmakers and activists tried to get a bill passed this year and last that would reduce the maximum allowable blood alcohol concentration for drivers in Washington from 0.08% to 0.05%. Proponents of the proposed change cited the fact that car crash deaths last year reached a three -decade high in Washington, while those opposed argued the change could pose challenges for the hospitality industry and perplex patrons.

While the bill was discussed in a hearing in the state House in January, it never received a vote before the legislative session ended earlier this month.

State Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, who participated in the quasi-trial, said one of his takeaways was that under the new proposed legal limit, most people would not blow over 0.05% after a single serving of alcohol. He now backs the idea.

“It was clear to me — because we had people of different sizes — that everybody could have one drink and still be under 0.05%,” Billig said. “That was one of the conclusions that I took away from this very small data set.”

‘This will pass eventually’

In 2023, more than 800 people were killed in impaired driving crashes on Washington roads and highways. The majority of those impaired driving crashes involved alcohol.

Trevor Pierce was 3 when he was struck and killed in a drunken driving crash 38 years ago. To this day, his mother, Linda Thompson, holds back tears every time she talks about the son she lost and urges lawmakers to lower the legal driving limit.

Thompson, a former Spokane Valley City Council member, is the executive director for the Greater Spokane Substance Abuse Council. She’s made it her life’s work to honor her son through pushing to make the roads safer and help people with substance use disorders get into recovery.

She’s been doing advocacy work long enough to remember when the state’s legal limit dropped from 0.1% to 0.08% in 1999. She said many of the concerns she heard about this year’s proposed decrease sounded similar to concerns she heard back more than two decades ago.

Thompson was disappointed the bill to lower the limit to 0.05% didn’t pass this year, but she said she will keep fighting.

“This will pass eventually. It will just happen when the leadership is there with the wherewithal to do this for our state,” she said. “It is not an accident when somebody drives impaired. We can all do our part to make sure everybody gets home safe from any event we have.”

Right now, Utah is the only state in the country that has a blood alcohol limit of 0.05%. But many other countries including Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Scotland and Spain have stricter thresholds than Washington. China and Sweden have 0.02% driving limits.

Roughly 84% of the globe’s population lives in a place with a blood alcohol concentration limit of 0.05% or less, said Mark McKechnie, spokesperson with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

“There’s very clear evidence that shows a person’s ability to drive is significantly impaired at a 0.05% BAC,” McKechnie said. “But in the U.S., it’s still a relatively new concept. There’s more education that’s needed.”

The Netherlands saw a 12% decrease in impaired driving over 10 years after establishing a 0.05% limit, according to data from the traffic safety commission. And after Japan lowered its limit to 0.05% in 1970, the country saw a 34% reduction in total traffic deaths by 1977. That reduction in deaths reportedly climbed to 66% by 1994.

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It is hard to gauge a benchmark for the number of alcoholic beverages a person would need to consume before hitting a 0.05% concentration . Many variables play into how an alcoholic beverage will be processed in the body — age, gender, body weight, genetics, metabolism, whether a person has recently eaten a meal, how strong a drink is, etc.

According to a peer-reviewed study found in the National Library of Medicine, a 0.05% blood alcohol concentration is not typically reached within a couple beers after work or with a glass or two of wine with dinner. The study indicates it takes at least four drinks for an average 170-pound male to exceed 0.05% in two hours on an empty stomach, and three drinks for a 137-pound female.

But again, experts say there are so many variables that factor into a person’s blood alcohol concentration that it is safest to err on the side of caution and never drive after drinking at all.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, doesn’t support the efforts to lower the limit for drunken driving.

“I think there’s a lot of us who believe there are better ways to improve public safety,” Schoesler said, adding that he believes repeat DUI offenders should be punished with a felony. “If people can get multiple DUIs and don’t learn their lesson, what difference does it make whether it’s 0.05% or 0.08%?”

In 2017, Utah became the first and only state to enact the 0.05% driving limit. Since then, DUI arrests have gone down, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And alcohol sales increased from 2017 to 2020 in the state, much to the surprise of people worried the lower limit would curb alcohol sales.

In 2019, 22.1% of drinkers in Utah reportedly indicated they had changed their behaviors once the new BAC law went into effect. A survey found the most common change among drinkers was not that they were drinking less, but rather that they started ensuring transportation was available when drinking away from home.

‘We take our jobs really seriously’

Billig said questions about how many drinks a person could have under the proposed new legal limit inspired him to do some of his own research. Earlier this year, Billig told some of his Spokane County constituents about the trial while he spoke at a virtual town hall event.

“Because I was not clear on what 0.05% or 0.08% actually means, and I found the information about numbers of drinks to be confusing and often conflicting,” he said in an interview, “I asked the State Patrol if they would provide us with a Breathalyzer to use in a controlled environment.”

The Washington State Patrol delivered on this request, Billig said, and then trained the group of legislators on how to use the breath-measuring device.

The senators proceeded to drink together in a “controlled environment,” Billig said.

Billig declined to provide names of other lawmakers who participated in the quasi trial, saying he didn’t have permission to disclose their names. He said the drinking trial took place in Olympia, and “everybody either had a designated driver or was walking.” He declined to name the specific location, however.

“It’s important to note that this is not a scientific experiment,” the Senate majority leader said. “This was just one trial and one moment in time. So we were careful not to draw global conclusions from just one experience. But it did, however, provide me with a better sense of what the different levels mean related to how impaired I feel and to how many drinks I had.”

The senate majority leader said he still blew under 0.05% after two drinks.

When asked if he blew over 0.05% after three drinks, Billig couldn’t recall.

“I don’t honestly remember,” he said. “Because then I ate, and so I don’t have it in front of me — what the results were. What was important was the first two for me and to have two without eating. … The two drinks is what I focused on.”

Billig went on to add that he doesn’t believe people should drink any alcohol whatsoever before driving. When all was said and done, the do-it-yourself trial led the Senate majority leader to support lowering the state’s legal threshold, he said.

“This is an example: As legislators, we take our jobs really seriously,” Billig said. “I was really on the fence about this bill, and I needed more information. One of the ways to fill the information gap that I had was to see myself, how it felt to be at different BAC levels. That’s not some grand scientific broad experiment.”