Inouye pushes for stricter DUI law

  • SEN. LORRAINE INOUYE

A bill that would lower the blood-alcohol content for drivers to be considered legally intoxicated was passed unanimously Wednesday by the state Senate Transportation Committee.

Senate Bill 2234, co-introduced by Sen. Lorraine Inouye, a North Hawaii democrat and the senate Transportation chairwoman, and Maui Sen. Gilbert Keith-Agaran, unanimously passed a committee vote without any amendments.

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The bill would reduce the blood-alcohol content threshold for being arrested and charged with a DUI from 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.

The measure also contains a provision that, if passed into law, would allow for a driver to be charged if that individual “is under the influence of any drug that impairs the person’s ability to operate the vehicle in a careful or prudent manner.”

“My committee in the Senate is concentrating on addressing the issue of increased deaths on the highways — anything to do with fatalities and accidents that’s occurring in our state. And this is one area of concern, as well,” Inouye said Thursday.

Written testimony was overwhelmingly in favor of the bill, including support from the state Department of Transportation, Mothers Against Drunk Driving Hawaii, Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, the Honolulu and Maui police departments and the Honolulu city prosecutor.

According to testimony submitted by the DOT, between 2015 and 2019, 30,150 drivers were arrested statewide for operating a vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant. Among drivers arrested, 5,195 tested between 0.00% and 0.79% blood-alcohol content, representing 1.72% of the total number of breath and blood tests given to those arrested for DUI. Those drivers, while arrested, couldn’t be charged, however, under the current law — unless another intoxicant in addition to alcohol was found in the driver’s system.

Those submitting written testimony opposed to the change include the state Office of Public Defender, which argued the proposed blood-alcohol content reduction “casts too wide a net, and will result in criminalizing the behavior of normal responsible drinkers without having an impact on reducing alcohol related fatalities.”

“Indeed, a female driver weighing a mere 100 pounds may reach a 0.05% BAC (blood alcohol content) with only one alcoholic drink,” the public defender wrote.

Two industry groups, the American Beverage Institute and the Wine Institute, submitted testimony opposing the bill.

Describing itself as “a public policy association representing 1,000 California wineries and associate members, the Wine Institute said the change “would effectively criminalize moderate drinking by responsible adults and divert resources that should be used to target repeat offender and high BAC (0.15% or higher) drivers.”

Arguing “lowering the legal BAC limit by 40% … will not improve road safety,” the American Beverage Institute urged lawmakers to “pursue alternative strategies to target the real problem, high-BAC drunk drivers, rather than make criminals out of moderate and responsible consumers.”

The transportation committee shelved Senate Bill 2510, a zero-tolerance measure that would allow police to arrest and charge any driver with a measurable amount of alcohol in their system.

“Since the House had one, just to debate the issue, I decided to introduce the zero-tolerance bill for the matter of discussion,” Inouye said, referring to House Bill 1999, which has received three committee referrals on Jan. 23, but no scheduled hearings, to date. “And we ended up passing the other one and not the zero-tolerance one at this time.”

Written testimony was overwhelmingly negative against the zero-tolerance bill, although it received the support of MADD Hawaii and several individuals who said they had family members killed by drunken drivers, including Ed Werner of Nanakuli, Oahu, whose 19-year-old son, Kaulana, a pedestrian, was killed in 2016 by an intoxicated hit-and-run driver on Farrington Highway across from the family’s home. A jury last year convicted Myisha Armitage — who testified she had blacked out and didn’t remember the collision — of negligent homicide, leaving the scene and failure to render aid.

Armitage was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Inouye said she’s confident the bill passed by her committee will make it through the senate. The next hurdle will be the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Oahu Sen. Karl Rhoads, which hasn’t yet scheduled a hearing.

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“He’s very concerned, as I am, about the need to create some actions and amend some statutes that tells people, ‘Hey, you need to behave when you drive a car,’” Inouye said.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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