Sen. President Peter Courtney didn’t expect to pass a bill to lower Oregon’s legal drinking limit to .05 blood-alcohol content this legislative session, but the Salem leader wanted to start the conversation.
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee did just that. Courtney, the Salem Democrat, got his wish for an informational hearing on his proposal to lower Oregon’s legal drunken driving limit from .08 to .05.
“This bill is about changing the culture we live in,” Courtney told the committee. He likened it to the culture shift undertaken in the early 1980s to lower the legal drinking limit from .10 to .08.
Courtney introduced the bill in February but started discussing the idea last year. Oregon wouldn’t be alone if it lowered the legal blood alcohol content level; Utah already lowered its limit to .05, a proposal pushed by the National Transportation Safety Board and other organizations.
Courtney made the case to his colleagues that driving in Oregon is much more perilous in 2019 than it was in 1983 when the state lowered the drinking limit to .08 from .10. Cell phones are ubiquitous now, the state’s population continues to grow, and cars are equipped with infinite distractions that make driving more difficult. Those issues are compounded by any level of impairment, Courtney said, and drivers have more options to get home safely thanks to ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft.
“The car is a dangerous weapon,” he added.
According to state figures, 11 people died in 2017 in crashes where drivers had blood alcohol content between .05 and .08, and 67 people were injured.
During the past five years, 41 people died under such circumstances, data show. In that same period, 543 were killed in crashes where drivers blew .08 or higher.
Lobbyists with the local and national drink and restaurant industry testified to oppose the bill.
Jackson Shedelbower, lobbyist with the American Beverage Institute, said drunken driving remained a serious threat and it was comforting lawmakers were considering action, but he characterized Courtney’s idea as “a distraction that will not address that problem.”
He said the real problem remained those drinkers who tally an average of .15 blood-alcohol content levels and account for the vast majority of fatal crashes, “not someone who enjoys a drink or two over dinner.”
Shedelbower said Courtney’s bill “criminalizes perfectly responsible behavior.” He said a 120-pound woman would effectively be limited to one drink before hitting the legal limit under Courtney’s proposal.
The Oregonian/OregonLive conducted a drinking lab earlier this year to illustrate how alcohol affects different people. The test showed what law enforcement officers have known for decades: drinkers generally have no idea what level of impairment they are at nor how many drinks it takes to get to .05 or .08.
Oregonians can legally be cited for driving under the influence even if they are below the .08 legal threshold if an officer determines they are impaired.
Law enforcement representatives support the bill, but say it needs to be coupled with separate legislation to boost the number of state troopers on highways. The agency has dozens of vacancies.
Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, asked state officials if moving the legal limit would help shift what he described as the “gargantuan number of people” who still drive drunk.
Courtney and state transportation officials said that’s the intended goal, but the culture shift may take a generation to accomplish.
Some 41,702 people were injured in crashes in 2017 in Oregon alone where a driver had a level of .05 or higher, more than the population of Keizer.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, the committee’s chair, said he’d like to see more data presented about the number of injuries and accidents between .00 and .05.
Courtney reiterated his desire to hold a working group during the lawmakers’ interim session to further study the issue.