The National Transportation Safety Board is recommending Hawaii reduce its allowable blood alcohol content by nearly 40 percent with the hope of reducing alcohol-impaired traffic crashes and fatalities.
The recommendation, handed down Tuesday, proposes Hawaii, along with the other 49 U.S. states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, drop its legal blood alcohol content limit for drivers from 0.08 to 0.05. The recommendation is among 19 new and repeated recommendations calling for stronger laws, swifter enforcement and expanded use of technology.
According to the board, while impairment begins at the first drink, research shows that by a 0.05 blood alcohol content most drivers experience a decline in both cognitive and visual functions.
“The NTSB concludes that BAC levels as low as 0.01 have been associated with driving-related performance impairment, and BAC levels as low as 0.05 have been associated with significantly increased risk of fatal crashes,” the recommendation reads. “This finding indicates that a major shift in public perception with respect to alcohol impairment is needed. Many people believe that if a driver’s BAC is under the legal limit of 0.08, the driver is safe to drive. In reality, by the time a driver’s BAC reaches 0.08, his or her fatal crash risk is at least doubled, and some studies indicate it may be many times higher.”
In 2011, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Fatality Analysis Reporting System data, 32,367 people died in roadway crashes. Of those fatalities, 9,878 — 30.5 percent — were attributed to alcohol-impaired driving.
Locally, 16 of the 34 fatal crashes that resulted in 38 deaths on Hawaii Island roads in 2012 were attributed to alcohol-impaired driving, according to Hawaii Police Department Traffic Services Section Sgt. Robert Pauole. That equates to nearly half — 47 percent — of fatal crashes here having alcohol as a contributing factor.
Police Chief Harry Kubojiri said he supports anything that would reduce the number of fatalities and injuries on Big Island roadways. However, lowering the BAC is just one of many aspects, like enforcement, education, treatment and sanctions, that need to take place.
“Lowering the alcohol content in and of itself, I don’t think will prevent additional vehicle crashes,” he said noting that crashes on Hawaii Island oftentimes involve not just alcohol, but illicit drugs, prescription drugs and multiple drug use. “But it definitely plays a role.”
The state Department of Transportation said it had yet to take a position because staff was still reviewing the recommendations.
Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, Ka‘u, said he plans to bring legislation before the 2014 Legislature to reduce the legal limit in Hawaii to 0.05. As an emergency room doctor, he said he was “impressed” by the NTSB recommendation.
He hopes the recommendation spurs various government entities, such as prosecutors and the judiciary, to get on board. While past legislatures tried to strengthen various laws related to drunken driving, some entities responded with a degree of concern about potential increased caseloads.
“This is a simple, elegant way to say, ‘We’re not going to tolerate drunken driving,’” he said. “It would be terrific (for Hawaii) to be a leader in this area because we have dealt with a lot of drunken driving.”
Rep. Cindy Evans, D-North Kona and South and North Kohala, questioned whether more money should be put into preventing alcohol impaired driving rather than tightening further the laws and increasing punishment.
“We can change from 0.08 to 0.05 but is that really going to get to the problem?” she asked. “I think we should be thinking about how we can prevent (drunken driving).”
Rep. Nicole Lowen, D-Kailua-Kona, Holualoa, said in a written statement: “If the studies show that drivers are impaired at that level of alcohol consumption, then it makes sense that they shouldn’t get behind the wheel. At the same time we also need to look at other factors that contribute to drunk driving, like improving public transportation, which would provide an alternative form of transportation.”
Rep. Denny Coffman did not respond as of press time for comment on the recommendations. Sen. Malama Solomon responded, but had not reviewed the report and was unable to comment.
MADD Hawaii State Executive Director Abigail Nickell said the organization, nationally and locally, is taking a neutral stance on the recommendations. The organization, however, is excited the recommendations will draw attention back to the issue of impaired driving.
The focus of the organization remains on the continued implementation of its Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving, which involves high-visual enforcement, requiring or strengthening ignition interlock laws and promoting research toward the development of advanced technology to prevent a drunken driver from operating a vehicle, she said.
Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth said more research needs to be done, however, he personally thinks lowering the legal limit is a good idea.
Having completed a “wet lab” training program with the Hawaii Police Department, Roth said even at 0.05 he wouldn’t feel comfortable getting behind the wheel of a vehicle. He further noted federal highway administration statistics showing that in 2009, 1,905 were killed in crashes involving a blood alcohol content between 0.01 and 0.07.
“We can definitely save lives,” he said about lowering the BAC limit.
Roth also said he is working on legislation to strengthen the state’s ignition interlock system law, which makes it essentially voluntary to install an ignition interlock device. He wants to make probation a part of a DUI sentence because it would open the door to requiring as a condition of probation such things as installing an ignition interlock device. Noncompliance could result in the revocation of probation.