Op-ed

Lowering legal blood-alcohol content to .05 a waste of time

By: Sarah Longwell

Hawaii Sen. Josh Green is behind the latest attempt to criminalize the responsible consumption of alcohol. He recently introduced a bill in the state Legislature that attempts to lower the legal blood-alcohol content (BAC) limit from .08 percent to .05 percent.

Green claims that lowering the blood alcohol content will make a big difference in protecting people on the road, but it looks more like a political stunt. In reality, only about 1 percent of traffic fatalities involve a driver within the disputed BAC interval of .05 and .08. And 70 percent of alcohol-related traffic fatalities are caused by drivers with BACs above .15 — almost twice the current legal limit. In fact, the average BAC level of a drunken driver involved in a fatal crash is .19. Those are the hardcore drunk drivers that state lawmakers need to address — not responsible social drinkers.

Lowering the legal limit to .05 would shift focus away from the truly dangerous drunk drivers on the road — while making it unnecessarily inconvenient for anyone to enjoy a glass of their favorite beer, wine or spirit. A 120-pound women reaches .05 after having a little more than a single drink, while a 150-pound man could go over the line with just two drinks. This could bring a halt to being able to have a couple cocktails after work with friends or enjoying some beers at a ballgame.

It would be one thing if driving at the .05 limit caused legitimate impairment, but it doesn’t. In fact, there are things you do every day while driving that are far more risky.

Research shows that using a hands-free cell phone impairs a driver as much as having a BAC of .08. It’s irrational to focus on drivers with low BACs — think between .01 and .07 — while dismissing more dangerous driving habits as harmless.

In fact, over 3,000 people are killed each year from distracted driving — such as texting while on the road. And in Hawaii specifically, more people are killed from speeding than drunk driving. If Sen. Green is truly attempting to make the roads safer for people in Hawaii, why not include a speed limit reduction in the proposal?

Traffic laws shouldn’t just blindly assign punishments — they need to take into account proportionality. A couple who has split a bottle of wine over dinner shouldn’t receive the same punishment as a hardcore drunken driver who chugged eight drinks before deciding to drive home. For instance, the law doesn’t treat someone going 5 miles per hour over the speed limit the same as someone going 20 miles per hour over. Why? Because common sense dictates that the latter poses a greater threat to traffic safety. Lawmakers and traffic safety officials need to apply the same principle to drinking.

The attempt shouldn’t be to criminalize what is perfectly responsible behavior, but instead, to target the high-BAC and repeat offenders who present a major danger to Hawaiian drivers.

Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) doesn’t support this crusade to lower the legal limit to .05. The activist group refused to support the idea when it was first floated by the National Traffic Safety Board in 2013. And the founder of MADD, Candy Lightner, went so far as to call the notion “impractical” and “a waste of time.”

The Hawaii Legislature shouldn’t waste its time floating a reduction in the legal limit when there are more pertinent traffic safety issues to tackle that will actually save lives. Say malama pono — or goodbye — to .05.

Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute.