Advocates argue a lower BAC level is an effective deterrent and makes roads safer overall.

A push to lower the legal blood alcohol concentration for Hawaii drivers fell short again this year, as it has for the past five years.

Senate Bill 160 would have led Hawaii to join just one other state, Utah, in lowering the legal BAC from .08% to .05%. Some research suggests such a move would reduce the number of traffic fatalities, but skeptics pointed to a lack of comparable data to justify the change.

Rep. David Tarnas, the chair of the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, said Sunday that he would not hear the bill.

“I’m not convinced that it actually is going to have a statistically significant impact,” Tarnas said.

Still, this is the farthest this type of bill has gotten since 2021, when the same committee nixed it.

HPD Police DUI Sobriety checkpoint Alapai Street. 5 may 2016.
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicate that more people die in crashes with sober drivers, suggesting other aggravating factors. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016)

Previous versions have failed going back to 2017. That year, then-Sen. Josh Green introduced a bill to lower the legal BAC while driving, to .05%; the next year the bill failed again.

While countries like Germany and Australia have reduced their blood alcohol content level to .05%, the findings from Utah, which made the switch four years ago, are too limited to determine how effective the law would be if implemented here, Tarnas said.

In the interim before the next legislative session, Tarnas plans to examine other countries’ data.

But a preliminary look at Hawaii’s own data doesn’t bode well for the law change, which has the support of the Honolulu Police Department and every county’s prosecuting attorney.

“I think maybe 2 to 3% of the traffic fatalities involve a driver with a blood alcohol content between .05% and .079%,” Tarnas said, pointing to a range of other factors underpinning the traffic death toll.

What Utah Has Found

At the end of 2018, Utah became the first state to lower its legal BAC limit from .08% to .05%. The following year, the number of fatal crashes in Utah fell 20% compared to 2016, while the national number fell just 5.6%, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found.

But for the next three years after 2019, data from the Utah Department of Public Safety shows the number of alcohol-related fatal crashes and fatalities went back up, higher than before the .05% BAC law took effect.

The coronavirus pandemic has likely rendered those figures unhelpful for comparison.

The new prohibited range also wasn't the most lethal: The Salt Lake Tribune reported in 2018 that less than 1% of people killed on the road in Utah from 2001 to 2016 involved drivers whose BAC was between .05% and .08%. More deaths occurred when the driver had a BAC level greater than .08%.

Speeding killed far more.

The nation's earlier, gradual shift from a legal BAC of .1% to .08% reduced the number of drunken-driving fatal crash rates, however. A study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that between 1982 and 2014, states lowering their BAC limits to .08% saved a total of 24,868 lives, reducing annual fatalities by about 10%.

The reduced .05% BAC limit appears to work as a deterrent, without significantly increasing the number of drunken driving arrests, according to Sgt. Cameron Roden, a spokesperson for Utah Highway Safety.

“It’s to encourage people to make better decisions right up front," Roden said. "It’s to help people to plan ahead for a sober ride.”

Utah officers didn't have to modify their policing methods after the change, he said.

Traffic stops in Utah are still based on probable cause for a violation, like speed or equipment failure. Standard field sobriety assessments — like the nine-step walk-and-turn or the one-leg stand test — follow if an officer decides they are necessary, Roden said.

"The only time we fall back on the .05 would be if they’re seeing signs of impairment and they're going to make the arrest anyway, but the results are coming in at .05 to .07," Utah Highway Patrol Maj. Beau Mason said. If an officer suspects the driver consumed alcohol, they can deploy a breathalyzer test, he said. "Where normally that wouldn't have been an arrest, now they'll make the arrest."

Rep. David Tarnas, right, chair of the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee said more research was needed to understand the potential benefits of the lower BAC level. (Screenshot/Hawaii Legislature/2023)

Speed Still Largest Factor In Fatal Crashes

In 2022, 467 traffic collisions on Oahu involved a driver under the influence, according to Honolulu Police Department spokesperson Michelle Yu. Just 10% of those — 47 — involved blood alcohol levels less than .08%, Yu said.

Drunken drivers who died in recent crashes in Honolulu had markedly higher BAC levels.

The Honolulu Medical Examiner took in 18 dead drivers between May 3, 2021 and the end of 2022 — the only available data — and five tested positive for alcohol.

Their blood alcohol concentrations sailed past the legal .08% BAC limit: .096%, .112%, .133%, .136% and .286% — a level that would require a 180-pound man to consume more than a dozen drinks.

Three of the 18 motorcyclists and moped drivers who died in that same period had BACs above .14%.

Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicates that more people die in crashes with sober drivers, suggesting other aggravating factors.

"To reduce fatal crashes, we have to focus on those that don't have alcohol in their system. There is something else that is doing it," Tarnas said.

For context, 114 drivers were involved in fatal crashes in Hawaii in 2020, according to NHTSA data. Of those, 29% were speeding, 18% didn't stay in the proper lane, another 18% were driving "in a careless manner," 12% were distracted by their phone, eating, talking or something else and only 10% were under the influence of drugs, alcohol or medication.

No complicating factors were reported for a quarter of the drivers.

Advocates Argue For Cumulative Effect

Advocates for the bill feel that any alcohol-related traffic death is one too many.

Despite the small proportion of deaths that occur with drivers whose BAC is between .05% and .08%, "if I ever talk to a victim's family about this, it's like 'It mattered to me,'" said Rick Collins, project director at the Hawaii Alcohol Policy Alliance.

Collins thinks the .05% BAC limit would serve as a deterrent, changing people's behavior, preempting bad decisions.

Rick Collins policy director for the Hawaii Alcohol Policy Alliance said the 0.5% BAC level would act as a deterrent. (Hawaii News Now)

"You get more of a cumulative effect," he said, arguing that the average driver's BAC would go down.

Although more deaths occur beyond the .08% BAC, Collins considers the .05% BAC "most preventative," by encouraging the entire community to drink less.

The Office of the Public Defender opposes the bill, saying it would overburden police and the courts, diverting attention from highly intoxicated drivers to less intoxicated, and theoretically less dangerous, ones. It would wrongly criminalize "normally responsible drinkers" without reducing deaths, the defender's office wrote in testimony.

Bills of this type also may be functionally redundant.

"There is nothing to prevent the police to arrest a person and the prosecutor to charge a person whose BAC level is under 0.08%," the defender's office wrote, citing a law that already criminalizes drivers who drank to the point of impairment.

People can be convicted for operating a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant with "evidence of bad driving" and "without the introduction of BAC evidence at trial," the office said.

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