State legislators want to lower Delaware’s threshold for drunken driving to one of the lowest levels in the nation.
Introduced last week, the measure would reset the blood-alcohol level at which a driver is deemed legally drunk from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent – making Delaware the second state to set a bar below the current nationwide standard.
“There is no guarantee, but my hope is this will increase safety on our roads,” said state Rep. Joseph Miro, R-Pike Creek, the bill’s chief sponsor.
“I think knowing you could be charged with a DUI by having a lower blood-alcohol content than what we have now would make more people conscious of it,” he said. “And I think bartenders and those who dispense alcohol might be more aware that perhaps a person has had too many drinks.”
Utah – which already has some of the nation’s strictest alcohol laws – recently became the first state in the country to adopt a standard of .05 percent. That law takes effect on Dec. 30.
There is a growing push for other states to follow suit.
Washington and Hawaii have both considered a similar reduction in recent years.
National and local hospitality trade groups, though, say such a move would be misguided.
“I have a lot of respect for Rep. Miro but this is an irrelevant issue to me,” said Carrie Leishman, president of the Delaware Restaurant Association. “Drunk driving is down because of a lot of public education and services like Uber and Lyft. You just don’t see it at the high level you once did.”
Delaware in 2004 became the last state in the nation to adopt the .08 BAC standard. The move came under the threat of losing nearly $2 million in federal highway money and only after nearly a decade of failed attempts.
In 2005 – the first full year of the new BAC limit – the state recorded almost 10,400 DUI arrests and 60 deaths from alcohol-related crashes, according to data from various state agencies.
By 2016, the number of DUI arrests had fallen 54 percent to 4,770. The number of deaths from alcohol-related crashes
The Delaware Office of Highway Safety attributed the dramatic reduction in DUI arrests to increased enforcement and marketing campaigns that have gradually changed social attitudes about drunk driving.
The American Beverage Institute, a Washington D.C. trade group that lobbies on behalf of the restaurant Industry, contends the number of alcohol-related fatalities has remained unchanged because Delaware is not focusing on the people causing those crashes.
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows more than half of Delaware’s alcohol-related traffic deaths in 2016 involved drivers with a BAC of 0.15 and higher. Only 2 percent involved someone with a BAC between .05 and .08.
“[Miro’s] proposal fails to target high-BAC and repeat drunk drivers who are responsible for a majority of alcohol-related traffic deaths,” said Sarah Longwell, ABI’s managing director. “If Delaware lawmakers really want to save lives, they have to focus on the real problem, not be distracted by feel-good legislation.”
ABI contends Miro’s bill would only criminalize what is now considered responsible drinking. A 120-pound woman could reach the proposed .05 limit after a little more than a single drink, while a 160-pound man would hit that threshold after two drinks, the group says.
Miro said he’s not swayed by those arguments.
“No matter what, I think we can all agree that the frequency of alcohol-related crashes and deaths is too high,” he said. “This legislation is one way to get that under control.”
The measure has been assigned to the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee.