Max Denning

As state legislators opened the 2019 legislative session last week, thousands of bills were introduced by lawmakers covering a wide swath of issues. Among them, a bill introduced by Senate President Peter Courtney proposes lowering the drunk driving limit from .08 blood alcohol content to .05. The law has support from the governor’s office and would give Oregon the strictest DUI law in the country along with Utah, which lowered its limit to .05 in December 2018.

Utah began enforcing its new limit for driving under the influence on Dec. 30. With less than a month of implementation, it’s unclear what the results will be. The law does have some high-profile organizational support. The National Traffic Safety Board has long supported lowering the limit to .05. A fact sheet published by the NTSB argues lowering the limit discourages those who have had an alcoholic beverage from driving.

“A .05 BAC law has a broad deterrent effect because it helps prevent drinking drivers from getting behind the wheel in the first place (it does not necessarily result in more DUI arrests),” the document states.

Another report by the NTSB claims the law could severely reduce car crashes. The report shows drivers with a BAC of at least .05 are seven times more likely to be in a fatal crash than drivers who have not had anything to drink. The report predicts passing this law could decrease fatal crashes by 11 percent.

A report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states 70 percent of fatalities involving alcohol included at least one driver with a blood alcohol content of .15 percent or higher.

In 1983, Oregon and Utah became the first states to decrease the legal drinking limit from .10 to .08. In other countries such as Australia, Japan and the vast majority of Europe, .05 has long been the legal limit.

Courtney told The Oregonian he expects passing the law to be difficult.

“It’s going to be a struggle,” Courtney said of his bill. “This is a Mount Everest move. It’s doable, but it isn’t going to be easy. I’m going to fight like hell to make it happen.”

Courtney also introduced the bill to decrease the legal driving limit to .08 in 1981, which he said was unpopular when he originally brought it up.

In her press conference before the beginning of the legislative session, Gov. Kate Brown said she thought decreasing the legal alcohol limit was a good idea.

State and national beverage organizations are expected to lobby against the bill. After only one week of the legislative session, it’s unclear if they’ve begun those efforts.

Rep. Greg Barreto (R-Cove), who represents the La Grande area, said he hasn’t thought much about decreasing the limit yet — he is more worried about individuals using marijuana and driving.

“Drinking and driving is easily detected, using marijuana and driving is not,” Barreto said.

Barreto also said he needed more information before he made a decision on whether or not he would support the BAC decrease.

“I would like to see what the numbers are out there, what the facts are,” Barreto said.

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