Is The Blood Alcohol Limit Changing?

Washington is considering making the legal blood alcohol limit for drivers lower, from 0.8 to 0.5%.  

The Seattle Times provided an interesting and thorough story on this topic.  It includes a good discussion as well on the back log of getting blood test results, which adversely affects the ability to prosecute impaired drivers.  We are providing a condensed version of the article below: 

Between 2017 and 2021, nearly one-third of all deadly traffic crashes in Washington involved a driver who had been drinking. More than a third involved a driver who tested positive for drug use.

As the number of fatalities has climbed at an alarming rate each year since 2019, the proportion of impaired motorists killing pedestrians, bicyclists, other drivers or themselves has grown even faster.

With the state estimating 745 road deaths in 2022 — which would be the most in 30 years once the toll is confirmed — the role played by drugs and alcohol is getting a new look. Lawmakers, advocates and attorneys are focusing on two fronts in particular: a proposal to lower the state’s legal alcohol limit for drivers, and the yearlong backlog at the state’s toxicology lab that is snarling courts and letting problem drivers stay on the road.

State senators have already advanced a bill that would lower the legal blood alcohol limit to 0.05%, down from 0.08%, a step taken only by Utah and one that safety advocates in Washington say would deliver a clear message to drivers to avoid taking the wheel after even a single drink.

At the same time, prosecutors across the state say their ability to keep people accused of impaired driving off the road is severely hobbled by a growing backlog at the state’s toxicology lab. Measuring drug and alcohol blood levels is taking a year or more to process, light-years away from the lab’s goal of 60 to 90 days. The result is many drivers who otherwise would lose their privileges still drive today — and sometimes reoffend.

The reasons traffic deaths have grown so precipitously in recent years vary — fast roads cutting through communities, bigger cars, less enforcement and higher speeds amid reduced congestion.

But while rebuilding arterials and surface highways is a costly and politically difficult task, clamping down on impaired driving has bipartisan support in Olympia and carries with it the hope that the change will be immediate.

Prosecutors, coroners and medical examiners in all 39 Washington counties send blood to the Washington State Patrol’s toxicology lab in Seattle for testing. Once upon a time, those results would be returned within two to three months.

In recent years, a backlog has begun to grow, and has accelerated since the beginning of the pandemic. Driving the delays are increased caseloads, limited space and lack of staff, said Chris Loftis, WSP spokesperson. Since 2012, the lab has seen a 45% increase in demand and currently processes up to 16,000 requests for tests per year.

If a person was clearly intoxicated, prosecutors might proceed without the blood level results. But in cases where a driver has refused a Breathalyzer or the on-scene evidence wasn’t clear enough, lawyers will choose to wait. The results are also important in cases where someone is combining drugs and alcohol, said Freedheim. Sometimes prosecutors will file charges while waiting, but that can backfire if the defendant doesn’t waive the right to a speedy trial. As a result, attorneys will sometimes hold off on filing the charges at all.

That means the person may continue to drive. For example, in September 2021, a 27-year-old man was arrested for driving over 100 mph before crashing on Interstate 405. Prosecutors waited to file the charges while the blood draw was being tested. The man was arrested again in January 2022 for, again, driving over 100 mph on I-405. Both times he was pulled over, police noted the smell of alcohol, according to court records. The man pleaded guilty to four counts in August, including felony DUI in both cases.

Industry opposition

The only state in the country with a blood alcohol limit below 0.08% is Utah, which lowered its threshold to 0.05% in 2019. The state saw a 20% reduction in fatal crashes that year, with surveys indicating drivers began modifying their behavior even before the new limit took effect. The National Transportation Safety Board, which has pushed for a lower limit for years, points to the results in Utah and encourages other states to follow suit.

Research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that “virtually all drivers, even experienced drivers, are significantly impaired” when driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08%. In fact, evidence suggests most drivers also are impaired at 0.05%, but to a lesser degree.

It’s unclear what the lower limit would mean for enforcement and prosecution; early data from Utah shows minimal changes in each.

In assessing the possible effects of lowering the limit, the state Board of Health said it’s difficult to know exactly what it will mean for the legal system, but that it’s possible there could be more arrests and more prosecutions, which could in turn lead to more cases for the toxicology lab. A representative from the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys told Board of Health analysts that lowering the limit “would likely affect prosecuting attorneys’ decisions to take a case to trial or to offer alternative resolutions (e.g. treatment).”

While the Utah law led to only small increases in arrests, the state did not examine how it affected the decisions of prosecutors.

The entire article at the Seattle Times by David Kroman can be found here:

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