Feb 3, 2023 - Politics

Washington considers lowering legal BAC limit to .05%

Illustration of a gavel coming down on a cocktail napkin.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Washington could become the second state in the nation after Utah to lower the legal limit of a driver's blood alcohol content (BAC) from .08% to .05%.

  • State lawmakers are currently considering a bill — which has bipartisan sponsors, a nod from the governor and the support of the Washington State Patrol — that would move the rate within the range of zero tolerance laws that currently apply to those under age 21.

Driving the news: Senate Bill 5002 cleared the Senate Committee on Law & Justice last month and had its second public hearing earlier this week, this time before the Senate Transportation Committee.

What they're saying: "Impairment starts with the first drink," the bill's sponsor, state Sen. John Lovick (D-Mill Creek), told the committee. The former Snohomish County sheriff and state trooper said the change is aimed at decreasing fatal and serious crashes.

  • "It is very clear to me that drunk driving is impacting the safety of our communities, and it is time that we do something," he said.

By the numbers: Last year, 745 people died in crashes on Washington roads — the most since 1990 — and more than half were impairment-related, according to information provided to the committee by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. Other data provided by the commission showed:

  • At least 32% of the state's fatal crashes involve alcohol-positive drivers.
  • Crash risk increases substantially for drivers with a BAC of .05–.079 because impaired drivers are more likely to speed, less able to react and control their vehicles, and less likely to wear seat belts.
  • Utah saw a nearly 20% decrease in fatal crashes, and saw about 10% decreases in both serious injury crashes and all crashes in the 12 months following the implementation of its law lowering the BAC limit.

The other side: Representatives of hospitality and alcohol-selling industries oppose the measure, saying it would harm the state's wineries industry and criminalize moderate drinking by responsible adults.

  • Josh MacDonald, executive director of Washington Wine Institute said small wineries that depend on tastings for sales would be especially harmed because lowering the limit would turn a "reasonable, modern consumption experience" into "a serious concern."
  • In written testimony, Sally Jefferson of the Wine Institute of California, said the proposed legislation casts too broad a net and diverts resources from high BAC drivers and "repeat offenders who are the cause of most alcohol impaired fatalities."

Be smart: Utah passed its law lowering the legal limit for drivers to .05% over similar objections in 2017, the same year a similar proposal fell flat in Washington.

But, but, but: Utah has 11 wineries. Washington has over 1,000 and is the second-largest wine producing state in the U.S., according to the Washington State Wine Commission.

What's next: Senate Transportation Committee chair Marko Liias (D-Lynnwood) said Wednesday that he hopes to pass the bill out of his committee next week, but is still working to secure enough votes.


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