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Washington lawmakers consider lower threshold for DUI charges as road deaths continue to rise

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State lawmakers are considering lowering the blood alcohol content limit to charge someone for driving under the influence.

Intoxicated drivers are involved in about half of the fatal crashes on Washington roads, and as road deaths continue to rise, lawmakers are considering a change that some say could deter more people from impaired driving.

"In 2023, we lost at least 800 lives on our roadway, and that is the highest we've seen in 33 years," said Debbie Driver, transportation policy advisor to Gov. Jay Inslee.

To reverse that trend, lawmakers are considering lowering the blood alcohol content limit to charge someone for driving under the influence.

Right now, the state’s legal limit is a concentration of .08% of alcohol in a person’s blood. Under House Bill 2196, it would drop to .05%. A similar proposal was considered in 2023.

Experts say the number of alcoholic drinks it would take to exceed that lower limit depends on a person's size, sex and whether or not they're eating food. According to one study, it would take the average 170-pound male at least four drinks on an empty stomach to exceed the .05 limit in two hours.

Only one state, Utah, already has the .05 BAC limit, but some others are considering it, including Hawaii and New York. The National Transportation Safety Board recommended states move to the lower .05 limit more than a decade ago.

Health officials, law enforcement and people who have lost loved ones in crashes involving an impaired driver say it's an important deterrent that will make drivers think twice before getting behind the wheel.

"These .05 laws save lives, and it's the education around the enforcement," said Dr.Beth Ebel, a pediatrics professor in Seattle.

Still, there are some concerns about the proposal from the hospitality industry, even as many agree drunk driving is a problem.

During the bill's hearing Thursday, lobbyists representing places that serve alcohol said they worry lowering the BAC limit could deter people from rural businesses or make servers more legally liable for overserving people – and some question if lowering the limit will actually work.

"We just don't think that lowering the BAC level to .05 is the right approach – we believe it'll put our staff and breweries at risk," said Daniel Olson from the Washington Brewers Guild.

The bill is scheduled for a possible committee vote next week.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.