DOVER — Legislation filed last week would lower the maximum allowable blood alcohol concentration for a driver from .08 to .05. Delaware would be the second state to lower its BAC limit below .08.
The main sponsor believes the measure will raise awareness of drinking and driving and could reduce car accidents in the long term.
“What is been happening is trying to make people more aware of the fact that if you’re going to drink, you need … someone that is going to drive you home,” Rep. Joe Miro, R-Pike Creek Valley, said.
“Use an Uber or a Lyft or a taxi. Drinking can be an issue that will quite often be a problem for not only you as a driver but for everybody else who is on the road.”
While Delaware law specifically states that anyone with a BAC of .08 or more is committing a crime, it also makes it illegal to drive at all under the influence of alcohol, giving law enforcement authority to arrest someone who is clearly impaired on the road but has a BAC below the legal limit.
House Bill 320 would change the limit for most individuals operating a car, although it would not affect the .04 maximum for drivers of commercial motor vehicles.
BAC is expressed as a percent, indicating how many grams of alcohol are in an individual’s body for every 100 milliliters of blood.
While no state currently has a legal limit below .08, Utah approved a .05 restriction last year and will officially adopt it Dec. 30.
Rep. Miro said his bill, which has one Republican co-sponsor and two Democratic backers, was modeled after Utah’s proposal.
In 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended the federal government encourage states to drop their limit to .05.
The bill is, however, facing stiff pushback from the restaurant and beverage industries, who fear the move will harm businesses and do little for public safety.
“I don’t want to see any barrier for someone going out and enjoying a nice dinner on a Friday night,” Delaware Restaurant Association President and CEO Carrie Leishman said. “This bill is not necessary.”
The American Beverage Institute, a national lobbying group, took a similar stance, saying the legislation would be ineffective and carry negative side effects.
“We all want to save lives on our roads and all oppose dangerous drunk driving, but lowering the legal limit from 0.08 to 0.05 BAC will not reduce alcohol-related traffic deaths,” managing director Sarah Longwell said in a statement.
“Instead, the move will target moderate social drinkers who have enjoyed a drink with dinner while ignoring the high-BAC and repeat drunk driving offenders — many of them registering at double or triple the current legal BAC limit — that pose the greatest threat to safety. If Delaware lawmakers really want to save lives, they have to focus on the real problem, not be distracted by feel-good legislation that criminalizes perfectly responsible behavior.”
Asked about the opposition from the restaurant industry, Rep. Miro said simply, “It’s their business.”
He thinks there will soon be a national trend toward lowering the BAC limit, citing movements to ban cell phone usage while driving.
Delaware altered its legal limit in 2004 from .1 to .08 under pressure from the federal government. It was the last state to make the change and did so only after Washington withheld $1.6 million in transportation funds.
Several lawmakers at the time cited a desire to focus on individuals with much higher BACs.
“The real problem is people who are at .2 and above,” Senate President Pro Tempore Thurman Adams, D-Bridgeville, said. “The difference between .1 and .08 is not that big of a situation.”
The Delaware State Police annual traffic report says there were 120 traffic fatalities in 2016. Of those, 48 were alcohol-related. 2005, the first full year after the state changed its restriction, saw 118 deadly crashes, of which 52 involved alcohol.
According to several online BAC calculators, a 170-pound male who drank four beers (each containing 4.5 percent alcohol) in two and a half hours would have a blood alcohol level of about .05.
A spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving said the organization has no position on the bill. A spokesman for Gov. John Carney declined to comment on the measure.
House Bill 320 is in the House Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee.