A measure that would make Hawaii the second state in nation to lower its blood-alcohol threshold for drunken driving to 0.05 is headed to the state House for consideration.
Senate Bill 754 passed its third reading on the Senate floor Tuesday with 24 senators voting in favor of the measure and four against. The Big Island’s four senators voted in favor of the measure, which was introduced by Sen. Chris Lee, an Oahu Democrat. Sen. Laura Acasio of Hilo was the only “aye vote with reservations.”
The proposal calls for the blood-alcohol content level for being arrested and charged with driving under the influence of an intoxicant be reduced from the current 0.08% to 0.05%. That translates to a decrease from 0.08 grams per 100 milliliters of blood to 0.05 grams of alcohol. For a Breathalyzer test, it would be a reduction from 0.08 grams of alcohol to 0.05 grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath.
If passed by the Legislature and signed into law, Hawaii would become the second state to lower the threshold, following Utah’s move in 2018.
“My reservations regarding this legislation related to the unfair impact it would have on people based on their weight,” Acasio said Wednesday. “A slight person could fail a Breathalyzer test calibrated for a 0.05% blood alcohol limit after having a single glass of wine, while people of greater weight could drink 2.5 glasses of the same alcoholic beverage and not fail it.”
The American Beverage Institute, a national restaurant trade association, condemned the Senate’s vote to move the bill forward, calling it a “gut punch to the state’s hospitality and tourism industries” and a “poorly targeted approach to improving traffic safety.”
“Hotels and restaurants are already struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Making criminals out of responsible Hawaii residents and tourists will only make a rebound more challenging,” the association said in a prepared statement. “Many people can reach a 0.05 BAC after consuming little more than a single drink — a level at which research shows they are substantially less impaired than when talking on a hands-free cell phone. Hardly a level of impairment to warrant going to jail or paying thousands of dollars in fines and increased insurance premiums.”
Further, the association said the vast majority of alcohol-involved traffic deaths in Hawaii occur well-above the current 0.08 standard. According to a National Highway Safety Administration analysis of 2010 fatal automobile crashes involving a drunken driver, the blood alcohol content of the driver in 7,145 fatal crashes, or 70%, was 0.15% or above while 3,003 of the drivers, or 30% had a BAC of 0.08-0.14%.
“Unlike a majority of their counterparts in the Senate, members of the Hawaii House of Representatives should consider the evidence before agreeing to criminalize behavior that is the current law in 49 states,” the statement continued.
Support for the measure as it moved through the Senate committees on Transportation and Judiciary outpaced opposition. For each of the committee hearings about a half-dozen agencies/groups and individuals submitted testimony against the bill and about 15 offered support for the measure’s passage.
The Office of the Public Defender opposed the bill, saying the measure casts too wide a net and “will result in criminalizing the behavior of normally responsible drinkers without having an impact on reducing alcohol related fatalities.”
“Another consequence of a reduction of the BAC will be increased court congestion. In order to deal with the backlog, you will need to add judges, prosecutors and public defenders,” the Office of the Public Defender wrote.
Organizations submitting written testimony in support of Senate Bill 754 included Mothers Against Drunk Driving Hawaii, Hawaii Alcohol Policy Alliance, National Safety Council, the Maui County Council, the Honolulu, Maui and Hawaii Police Departments and individuals.
Hawaii Police Department Chief Paul Ferreira said in recent years alcohol-impaired driving has been a factor in approximately 31% of all traffic fatalities and critical collisions in Hawaii County.
“The reduction of blood and breath alcohol levels will help make our roads safer by identifying unsafe levels of intoxication, allowing for efficient enforcement and prevent driving while intoxicated. It is for these reasons, we urge this committee to approve this legislation,” he wrote.
MADD found Carol McNamee offered support for the bill on behalf of the Hawaii Chapter, stating that according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 12,389 people were killed in alcohol-impaired crashes in the U.S. in 2019. That year, 108 fatalities were recorded on Hawaii’s roads with at least 36% determined to have been alcohol-related.
“MADD believes that adopting a .05 BAC will help save even more lives — in fact, studies suggest over 1,700 lives could be saved each year if all states enacted a .05 BAC law. A meta-analysis of all studies on lowering the blood alcohol limit found that a .05 BAC level would reduce drunk driving deaths by 11.1 percent,” McNamee wrote.
Attempts to reach MADD Hawaii on Wednesday were unsuccessful as of press-time.