Hawaii residents and visitors beware. Legislation is moving through the state government that could land those currently considered responsible consumers in jail. And for what offense? Splitting a bottle of wine over dinner or enjoying a tropical drink on the beach prior to driving. More specifically, the legislation seeks to lower the long standing legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) arrest level for drunk driving from 0.08 to 0.05. That is a 40% reduction.
Studies find that talking on a hands-free cellphone while driving is more than twice as impairing as someone with a 0.05 BAC. It’s obvious the term “impairment” can be misleading. Just because a certain activity is said to be “impairing” doesn’t necessarily suggest it has a meaningful influence on traffic safety. Listening to the radio or engaging in conversation with a passenger is also considered impairing by traffic safety experts. But we don’t lock people up for that behavior.
Legislative support for lowering the legal limit is puzzling. Enforcing current laws would be far more effective than changing them. The proposed policy simply targets the wrong group of people.
Statistics provided by the federal government are telling. They reveal Hawaii drivers with BACs three-times the newly proposed threshold — are responsible for the vast majority of alcohol-related traffic fatalities. The average BAC of a drunk driver involved in a fatal crash in the state is 0.18. That is nearly four-times the proposed 0.05 arrest level.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) previously found that the evidence supports a 0.08 BAC arrest level. Charles Hurley, formerly of the National Safety Council and President of MADD, in an NPR interview argued that drinking before driving “shouldn’t be criminalized until 0.08.” Candy Lightner, the founder of MADD, repeatedly spoke out against these low BAC levels as being a distraction from the real problem. Given that traffic safety has improved substantially over time, it’s curious why the organization has now recanted its long standing support for 0.08. One thing is certain: it’s not new evidence behind the proposed change.
How poorly targeted is dropping the arrest level to 0.05 BAC? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reveals that among drivers involved in a fatal crash who tested between 0.05 and the current 0.08 BAC benchmark, there was one “alcohol involved” accident for every 3.3 billion miles traveled. And given the broad definition of “alcohol involved” versus “caused,” there is no evidence that alcohol was a primary factor in those incidents. In fact, NHTSA cautions their data “does not indicate that a crash or a fatality was caused by alcohol impairment.” What evidence can justify this change in law aimed at people presently considered to be and are acting responsibly?
Another suggestion is that we blindly follow the lead of European countries that have 0.05 arrest levels. What goes unmentioned is that level is coupled to laws in all those countries that allow teenage drivers to drink before getting behind the wheel. That fact omission is another example of intellectual bankruptcy in the attempt to threaten more people with arrest.
In truth, this is not a debate about drunk driving and traffic safety. Rather it’s a morality issue focused on beer, wine and spirits. The hospitality industry has always supported enforcement directed at alcohol and drug abuse. However, when aiming at that target we must avoid putting responsible consumers and unsuspecting tourists in the crosshairs of poorly constructed agendas.
Jackson Shedelbower is the communications director for the American Beverage Institute in Washington, D.C.