Is 0.05 drunken driving? Proposed legislation says yes

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
Abdullah Hammoud, 29, a non-drinker with a background in public health, introduced a package of bills last week that would lower the threshold for drunk driving to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05, from the current 0.08.

State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud concedes that his goal is not just to eliminate drunken driving. He wants to keep anybody who has consumed any amount of alcohol from getting behind the wheel.

"Drink, or drive," said Hammoud, D-Dearborn. "Choose one. It should never be both."

Hammoud, 29, a non-drinker with a background in public health, introduced a package of bills last week that would lower the threshold for drunken driving to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05, from the current 0.08. 

HB 4420-2 also would increase penalties for drunk drivers and mandate ignition interlocks for anyone convicted of a drunken-driving offense — even at the new, lower level.

Hammoud insisted that a switch to 0.05 will create safer roads. Others are equally certain that it will only create problems.

"You and I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that no one is drunk at .05," said William Maze, whose Livonia-based law practice has focused on alcohol-related offenses for 22 years. "It's stupid to even suggest it."

Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, took a similar shot: "It's a tactic to create extreme fear. Driving at .05 is not what's creating the carnage."

The National Transportation Safety Board first suggested a drop to 0.05 in 2013, but the notion drew little traction. Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving declined to endorse it.

But as of last New Year's Eve, Utah became the first state to adopt 0.05 as the limit — and MADD National President Helen Witty stood with Hammoud at his news conference.

"Research shows that critical driving skills are impaired at .05 BAC," she said, "significantly increasing the risk of a horrible, 100-percent preventable crash."

The question is exactly how much drivers' skills are affected.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administrationcontends that at 0.05, there are falloffs in coordination, steering, emergency response and vision. What's unclear is the impact.

Studies have shown that a 120-pound woman can reach 0.05 with one drink in an hour. "To penalize somebody who's had one or two drinks with a criminal offense seems drastic," Ellis said.

A retired Lansing-area police officer, Ellis said he helped start seat belt enforcement zones in Michigan.

"I'm not for drunk driving," he said. "I'm for attacking the problem correctly."

Hammoud noted that BAC limits in European countries are nearly all set at 0.05 or lower. He referenced a 9 percent rise in drunken-driving deaths in the United States from 2014 to 2017, when the total was 10,874.

That number represented 29 percent of all driving fatalities. In fatal drunken-driving crashes, 70 percent involved drivers with a BAC above 0.15 — the legal limit until a switch to 0.10 in 1984, and at least three times the level called for in Hammoud's proposed legislation.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1,837 people were killed in crashes in 2017 where drivers had alcohol levels of 0.01-0.07. Whether alcohol contributed to the incidents, and what other hazards may have been in play, can be difficult to determine.

The American Beverage Institute has cited studies claiming that a 0.05 BAC is less hazardous than talking on a hands-free cell phone or being 65 years old.

The opioid crisis and legalized marijuana also might have contributed to the rise in deaths from 2014-17, Ellis said, but nobody has factored that into the total. The standard when he was a police officer, he said, was to test for alcohol in accident victims, but not to bother with an expensive test for drugs once drunkenness had been established.

In Michigan, where 311 people died in alcohol-related accidents in 2017, Ellis' Michigan Licensed Beverage Association members already are dealing with a changing marketplace for alcohol.

Twenty years ago, he said, 80 percent of alcohol was consumed in bars and restaurants. Now, 80 percent is purchased elsewhere. The changes are societal — dating apps have largely replaced singles bars — and possibly numerical, with all 50 states dropping their BAC minimums to the current 0.08 by 2004.

"Our industry has already taken a hit," he said. A switch to 0.05 could only accelerate the bleeding.

Utah tourism officials were vehemently opposed to the proposal to lower the limit, and the state beverage association took out newspaper ads in neighboring states and USA Today that read, "Utah: Come for vacation, leave on probation."

Fred Boutwell, the operations director for the six Market Street Grill and Market Street Oyster Bar restaurants in greater Salt Lake City, said he saw a slight early drop-off in alcohol receipts after the more strict BAC law took effect.

But he pointed out that Utah, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints discourages drinking and about 55 percent of the residents are Mormons, is not the best test lab.

Boutwell said a counter-proposal from the tourism authority was to make a BAC between 0.05 and 0.08 an infraction on the order of a speeding ticket, with accelerated penalties for repeated offenses.

The legislature was not interested — and at this point, neither are Ellis or Hammoud.

"Our stance would be not to go to .05 at all," Ellis said.

Hammoud said his immediate concern is getting a hearing for his bills.

"I'm optimistic," he said. "If not these bills, let's talk about what we can do to reduce the amount of drunk driving on our roads."

Maze, the attorney, said the most productive thing Hammoud could do is sit still.

"I can't wait for self-driving cars," he said. "It's going to put me out of business, but that's OK."

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn