- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate has proposed reducing the blood alcohol content for drunken driving to 0.05 percent — the lowest in the nation and a threshold that in some cases would criminalize getting behind the wheel of a car after as little as one drink.

The legislation follows recommendations last year by the National Transportation Safety Board that states lower the legal blood alcohol content for drivers from 0.08 percent, the standard recognized by Congress in 2000.

Five states have introduced legislation responsive to the recommendation, but the measures have struggled to gain traction and no state has adopted them.

Lowering the legal limit would mean that a 120-pound woman could reach the 0.05 percent blood alcohol content level after just one drink, said Sarah Longwell, spokeswoman for the American Beverage Institute, which has opposed measures to reduce the threshold.

“Sometimes politicians look for something they view to be noncontroversial. Being tough on drunk driving is something that works in a politician’s favor,” Ms. Longwell said. “The problem in this case is you are not being tough on drunk driving; you are creating criminals where there are not any.”

The timing of the bill was difficult to ignore. It comes just over a month after D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, defeated incumbent Vincent C. Gray to win her party’s nomination for mayor. She faces a general election challenge from council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, who has attacked her for lacking a substantive legislative record.

Ms. Bowser’s bill, which drew the support of council member Anita Bonds, at-large Democrat and council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, would create special penalties for people whose blood alcohol content is 0.05 percent to 0.08 percent. Under the bill, first-time offenders would have driving privileges suspended for at least three days.

A second offense within that level would result in a suspended license for at least a week, and a third offense within a five-year period would carry at least a 30-day suspension. Existing criminal penalties would remain in place for any convictions of 0.08 percent blood alcohol content.

“This bill alters the conversation about what is impaired driving and provides police with an additional public safety tool,” Ms. Bowser said.

When the National Transportation Safety Board made its recommendations to lower the legal limit, officials cited research showing that upon reaching a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent, people experience declines in cognitive and visual functions.

Opponents of lowering the legal limit point to statistics that show the majority of drunken drivers involved in fatal crashes, 70 percent, register blood alcohol contents of 0.15 percent or higher.

A representative with the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, which promotes and represents the industry in the D.C. area, said the group had no immediate comment on the bill but would be monitoring it.

Ms. Bowser said the District can “lead on this issue,” yet the lowered limits have proved a thorny subject — even among those who hope to stamp out drunken driving.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving praised Ms. Bowser’s interest in the issue but pointed out more effective ways to combat the problem. The group, which declined to endorse the NTSB’s recommendation of a 0.05 percent standard, has suggested greater use of ignition interlock devices that render cars inoperable unless the driver is sober.

“You can certainly make the argument that impairment begins before 0.08,” said J.T. Griffin, chief government affairs officer with MADD. “In terms of law enforcement, it could be difficult to enforce.”

States that have adopted ignition interlock programs have seen drunken driving fatalities drop 30 percent to 40 percent, Mr. Griffin said.

While advocates say the District has made significant progress in recent years at targeting and reducing drunken driving deaths, few people are issued ignition interlock devices, said Kurt Erickson, president of Washington Regional Alcohol Program, known for running the free taxi program Sober Rides.

The District also has had difficulties enforcing drunken driving laws.

The city’s police department came under scrutiny in 2010 when it shut down its Breathalyzer program after it was discovered the machines that test blood alcohol level weren’t calibrated correctly. Hundreds of drunken driving convictions came into question as a result.

The department resumed use of its Breathalyzers in 2012 but paid out $20,000 to resolve cases involving four people who challenged their convictions based on the faulty equipment.

That same year, lawmakers adopted legislation that stiffened penalties for repeat drunken drivers and those with extremely high blood alcohol content.

The number of arrests across the D.C. area for driving while under the influence reached close to 18,000 in 2012, but only 1,340 arrests were made in the District, according to data from the regional alcohol program.

The number of alcohol-related fatalities in the District numbered 26 in 2007 but dropped to two in 2011, according to the most recent available data from the Department of Transportation.

“The District is absolutely outpacing the nation in reducing alcohol-related fatalities,” Mr. Erickson said.