Studies say tougher rule means fewer deaths. Opponents say new limit would hit wrong group.
Since the last major change to the state’s drunk-driving standard, in 1990, many Californians have developed at least a foggy sense of how much alcohol they can consume without risking a DUI — or worse.
If a new bill is approved, drinkers might have to change their habits.
That’s the hope, anyway, of Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, D-Marina del Rey. This week, she introduced a bill that would lower the threshold for driving under the influence to .05 percent blood-alcohol content from the current .08 percent.
The bill, AB 1713, is called Liam’s Law in honor of a 15-month-old boy who in 2016 was struck and killed by a drunk driver as his 15-year-old aunt pushed his stroller across a Hawthorne street. Liam’s parents, former mixed martial arts fighter Marcus Kowal and his wife Mishel Eder, have crusaded for a lower legal alcohol limit as one way to reduce alcohol-related traffic deaths in California.
Burke said she was influenced by listening to Kowal and Eder, who are constituents of hers in the 62nd Assembly District.
“I’m a mother of a 4-year-old,” Burke said in a phone interview. “So, obviously, it touched me personally.”
“Every year, we see drunk drivers kill or injure our friends and loved ones because they thought they were OK to drive,” said Flora, who also introduced a bill to raise penalties for repeat DUI offenses. “Lowering the (blood alcohol content) limit to .05 percent has (been) shown to decrease DUI-related traffic fatalities by serving as a deterrent to folks driving drunk in the first place.”
California’s general limit has been .08 since 1990, while the limit for commercial drivers is .04, and people under age 21 can be charged with impaired driving at .01.
A .05 standard for DUI is advocated by the National Transportation Safety Board, which forecasts that lowering the threshold from .08 to .05 in every U.S. state would save 1,500 lives a year nationwide. That’s similar to a 10.4 percent reduction in alcohol-related traffic fatalities cited by advocates since states lowered the standard from .10 to .08 starting in the 1980s.
According to estimates, reaching .08 takes four drinks for an average-size American man and three drinks for an average-size American woman. Reaching .05 would take three drinks for an average man and two for an average woman. Smaller people need fewer to reach the same blood-alcohol concentration.
Utah became the first state to implement a .05 limit on Jan.1, and similar bills have been introduced in New York and Oregon.
In California, the new bill is likely to face opposition.
Jackson Shedelbower, spokesman for the American Beverage Institute, which opposes lower DUI thresholds, said AB 1713 is well-intended but would do little to save lives.
“When (a bill) is first introduced, the 10,000-foot view is, ‘This is a law that’s tough on drunk driving. It should pass pretty easily,’ ” Shedelbower said. “But in reality it’s not tough on drunk driving. It’s punishing moderate, social drinkers. It’s focusing traffic safety resources away from people who are the real problem toward people who aren’t the problem.”
Shedelbower said “high level” drinkers and repeat drunk-driving offenders cause most alcohol-related collisions. He said, for a driver, a .05 percent blood-alcohol content is less impairing than talking on a hands-free cell phone.
And he questioned data that suggests cutting the DUI threshold to .08 saved lives, saying safer cars and better education about drunk driving are keys to fewer alcohol-related traffic deaths.
The American Beverage Institute spokesman said his alcohol-industry trade organization favors other efforts to fight drunk driving, such as stepping up enforcement of ignition interlock device “breathalyzer” requirements. In California, a breathalyzer requirement for some DUI offenders kicked in on Jan. 1.
Burke said she agrees that “there’s not (just) one solution,” and added: “I’m hoping reducing the BAC (blood alcohol concentration) reduces drunk driving even lower.”
One potential obstacle for AB 1713, Burke said, is the Legislature’s recent reluctance to pass laws that will put more people behind bars. In California, DUI penalties include 48 hours in jail for a first offense, 10 days for a second offense and 120 days for a third offense, as well as fines and limits or revocation of driving privileges.
Defense attorneys questioned the benefit of reducing the DUI threshold to .05, saying the breath tests that police use to measure blood-alcohol content are inaccurate.
“It’ll lead to more people being arrested for DUI, and it will lead to more innocent people being convicted of DUI because the breath test machines are inherently unreliable,” said Myles L. Berman, who pitches himself as “Top Gun DUI Defense Attorney” in Los Angeles-area broadcast ads.
Lawrence Wolf, a criminal and DUI attorney in West Los Angeles, said California’s move to .08 has helped to reduce drunk driving. But he said .05 is so low that some people could reach it after only one drink, and police could feel justified in testing anyone with alcohol on their breath.
“The question is whether or not those (improved safety) numbers would justify the potential abuse of being suspected of being under the influence,” Wolf said.
AB 1713 is expected to face its first official debate in the Assembly Public Safety Committee in late March.