While a proposal to lower Hawaii’s maximum blood-alcohol content for legal driving might discourage people from getting behind the wheel after drinking, it also might damage the hospitality industry, according to testimony heard Thursday by the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee.

Senate Bill 2053 was introduced by Sen. Josh Green, a medical doctor. It would lower Hawaii’s maximum BAC limit for drivers from .08 to .06 percent.

Of 34,152 drivers arrested for driving under the influence from 2011 to 2015, 12.6 percent had a BAC of below .08 and were released due to a lack of evidence, according to testimony from the Department of Transportation.

Honolulu Police Deparment officers along Kalakaua Avenue duirng the Honolulu Festival parade. 8 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The National Transportation Safety Board believes all states should lower their BAC limit from .08 to .06. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

About 7 percent of alcohol-related traffic deaths in Hawaii involved a BAC under .08, said Derek A. D’Orazio, chief adjudicator of the state Judiciary.

He cited statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found drivers with a BAC of .05 still showed signs of intoxication, such as impaired judgment, difficulty steering and reduced response to emergency driving situations.

“If we can save even a few more lives, I think it’s worth it.” – Maj. Darren Izumo, Honolulu Police Department

“Most industrialized nations set lower limits and impose graduated sanctions for BAC levels as low as .05 percent, if not lower,” the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney said in written testimony.

Committee Chair Sen. Lorraine Inouye noted that all the data referenced .05 as showing signs of intoxication, but nothing was said of .06 specifically.

“I’m assuming Dr. Green introduced (the .06 number) as a compromise,” said Maj. Darren Izumo of the Honolulu Police Department’s traffic division. “If we can save even a few more lives, I think it’s worth it.”

However, the Judiciary’s D’Orazio said his department would need to expand its staff to enforce the change, and State Public Defender John Tonaki said his office lacked the resources to handle an influx of arrests and testified against the bill.

“If you add a few thousand more (cases) to our office … that’s gonna have an impact on the court system,” Tonaki said.

“This industry is a vital industry in Hawaii.” – Bill Comerford, chairman of the Hawaii Bar Owners Association

Tonaki said that when courts become more congested, cases are eventually dismissed “based on age of case, not seriousness.” Instead, he suggested the state increase maximum penalties for repeat offenders.

Some said SB 2053 was a bad idea because it would harm local businesses.

Bill Comerford, chairman of the Hawaii Bar Owners Association, said he recalled a time when the legal limit was more than .10. He said the current BAC limit of .08 was “a fair balance” that ensured public safety without harming the restaurant and bar industry, where alcohol consumption is “supervised.”

Comerford also said most drunk driving accidents occur when a BAC higher than .14 is involved.

“To reduce the BAC to .06 becomes anti-business and anti-jobs,” Comerford said in his written testimony. “This industry is a vital industry in Hawaii,” Comerford said.

While the type of alcohol consumed does not affect BAC, the number of drinks do. People with a lower body weight will have a higher BAC than heavier individuals who drink the same amount, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In addition, alcohol remains in the bloodstream longer for women because alcohol cannot absorb into fat cells as easily, and women on average have more body fat per pound than men.

After the hearing, the measure was deferred indefinitely.

Hawaii has already banned purchase and public use of tobacco products and e-cigarettes for those under 21.
Hawaii has already banned the purchase and public use of tobacco products and e-cigarettes for those under 21. Challiyil EswarChalakudy via Wikimedia Commons

Pushing Smoking Limits Further

Senate Bill 2083, which would nudge the entire state of Hawaii to join Hawaii County and more than 20 jurisdictions in the U.S. that already prohibit smoking in a vehicle where a minor is present, was passed by the committee on a 4-2 vote.

Dr. Virginia Pressler of the Department of Health quoted CDC statistics that said nearly half of America’s youth was exposed to secondhand smoke and that the toxins in a smoke-filled car are 23 times greater than a bar.

Trish La Chica, policy and advocacy director of the Hawaii Public Health Institute, said in her testimony that she suffered from asthma as a result of growing up in a household of smokers. She cited statistics from the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii, which found that 82 percent of Hawaii residents and 71 percent of smokers were in favor of smoke-free vehicle where minors are present.

Still, some committee members had their reservations.

“If tobacco was as evil and as bad as proponents think, then it should’ve been banned a long time ago,” said Sen. Sam Slom, who voted against the bill.

Though she voted in favor of the bill, Sen. Michelle Kidani said some information had been overlooked, such as how the bill would be enforced and whether or not lowering windows would make a difference.

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