Later this month, debate is set to begin around California Assembly Bill 1713—legislation that would lower the legal blood alcohol limit for driving from 0.08 to 0.05 BAC and redefine “drunk” in the eyes of the law to mean consuming one or two glasses of wine. Although the policy is being framed as a strategy to reduce drunk driving accidents, the idea is deeply flawed.

The story behind the bill’s introduction is tragic.

Nicknamed “Liam’s Law,” the legislation is named after a 15-month-old toddler who was killed when an elderly woman who had consumed way too much alcohol drove through the crosswalk where Liam’s aunt was pushing him in a stroller. This tragedy is something no family should ever have to endure.

However, although the circumstances are heartbreaking, they cannot detract from the facts.

The criminal responsible for taking this child’s life foolishly decided to consume to excess before getting behind the wheel. It’s obvious she was dangerously impaired if she was incapable of avoiding pedestrians in broad daylight. In fact, the police were able to determine she registered a 0.12 BAC after the incident, a level 50 percent greater than the current arrest level of .08.

It’s clear that a lower legal limit would not have persuaded this woman to put down her keys.  She was already disregarding the current .08 law.

This behavior is an important piece of anecdotal evidence that highlights the core flaw plaguing California’s proposed .05 legislation. Lowering the legal limit does nothing to address the group of high-BAC and repeat drunk driving offenders who are responsible for the overwhelming majority of alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

More specifically, according to the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 92 percent of alcohol-related traffic deaths involve someone with a BAC of 0.10 or above. Additionally, the average BAC of a drunk driver involved in a fatal crash is 0.18—more than double the current legal threshold and over three times that of the proposed new one.

Distributing limited traffic safety resources efficiently—meaning where they can have the most substantive impact—by targeting this group of dangerous drunk drivers should be the core of traffic safety policy. Meaningful advancements on this front can be made by increasing investment in saturation and roving patrols that actively seek out dangerously impaired drivers. Or, perhaps, by ramping up enforcement of ignition interlock laws—an area where compliance levels are shockingly low in the state.

Proponents of .05 policies often push back against this line of reasoning, claiming that lower legal limits reduce drunk driving deaths at all BAC levels—especially high ones. However, that argument defies logic and common sense.  It’s unlikely a criminal who already breaks the law by driving above the current .08 limit will change their behavior after the level is lowered.

Instead, lowering the legal limit is another case of selective morality. The policy will only criminalize moderate and responsible social drinking even though it’s less “impairing” than talking on a hands free cellphone. Is this the group of citizens we want to focus on in the name of traffic safety?

When equipped with a more comprehensive understanding of traffic fatality statistics, it’s evident a .05 law turns road safety priorities on their head and will do little to save lives.

The story behind California’s .05 legislation is appalling, but adversity does not justify the implementation of bad policy that would not have prevented the tragedy. Instead, state lawmakers should embrace policies that will effectively reduce alcohol-related traffic fatalities, rather than simply watering down the definition of intoxication.

Jackson Shedelbower is the communications director of the American Beverage Institute.

In Depth on the Issue

Lowering the Blood-Alcohol Arrest Level

ABI strongly opposes lowering the blood-alcohol arrest level. The move is an attack on the restaurant and hospitality industries and converts responsible consumers into criminals. Don’t allow your state legislature or municipality to be fooled by a false narrative linking a lower BAC arrest threshold with increased traffic safety. Stand…
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