Washington lawmakers consider lowering legal threshold for drunk driving

A push to lower the legal threshold for drunk driving in Washington is finding new momentum in Olympia.

A group of bipartisan lawmakers wants to make it illegal to drive with a blood alcohol content level of .05%, instead of the current .08%.

Utah is the only state to lower the threshold, and federal safety officials say after the change, fatal crashes there dropped by nearly 20%.

“This is about changing community norms to protect everyone on the roads,” said Linda Thompson of the Washington Association for Substance Misuse and Violence Prevention.

Thompson has advocated for traffic safety since her son, Trevor, was killed by a drunk driver in 1986.

“The year that Trevor was killed, there were 500 people killed in our nation under the age of six. And to think that one of them was my little boy and we could have prevented it if we had had the lower BAC,” she said.

Thompson pushed to lower the blood alcohol content level to the current .08, and now supports a proposal to lower Washington’s legal limit to .05, which Utah lawmakers did in 2017.

“People started thinking, .05 how many drinks can I have? More important, how do I get home safely?” Thompson said.

Gov. Jay Inslee supports the change, as does a bipartisan group of lawmakers alarmed that Washington just had the highest number of traffic deaths in 30 years.

An association representing bar and restaurant owners opposes the change, saying workers responsible for not overserving won’t be able to tell if a patron is above the limit.

“There are no physical signs of intoxication at .05 BAC,” Julia Gorton of the Washington Hospitality Association told lawmakers this week.

DUI defense attorney Jon Fox said field sobriety tests are designed for .08, and won’t work for a .05 standard, when people often don’t feel impaired.

“That’s going to make criminals out of people who have no idea they’re in violation of the law,” Fox said.

Fox predicts .05 DUI cases will be hard for prosecutors to prove and will add more stress to an already-backlogged justice system.

“If the legislature wants to make a statement like this, which is don’t drink and drive, then why not make the level just zero? That is a bright line everyone can understand,” Fox said.

The bill is now in a Senate committee.