By Mannix Porterfield
By an estimation, Raleigh County Sheriff Steve Tanner and others in the field of law enforcement face more intensified road patrols — and an increase in arrests — if West Virginia lowers the chargeable blood alcohol content from .08 to .05.
Even so, Tanner is in full support of the idea advanced by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Depending on a variety of factors, such as gender, weight and age, this could mean that a BAC of .05 could witness a good many motorists getting some temporary room and board in a regional jail after downing one cocktail and getting behind the wheel.
In a bygone era, Tanner pointed out, society accepted the practice of having a few cans of beer or some hard stuff and then getting on the highway.
All that has changed in recent years, however, thanks to a sustained campaign by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, legislative acts and solid marketing practices.
“I think everybody is aware that you simply have no reason to drink and drive,” Tanner said.
“There are too many other options. We see that DUI continues to be a problem. We see that alcohol is a contributing factor to almost all crime. So, people aren’t getting the message. We need to change.”
One change that Tanner is in sync with is making it easier for police to bring DUI charges against drinkers.
“If we need to get more aggressive, then perhaps that will be overall a good thing to reducing the number of DUIs, making our roads safer,” the sheriff said.
Without question, a lower BAC translates into more work for Tanner’s department.
“Absolutely,” he said.
“It comes at a cost. Everything does come at a cost. And it will make it harder for law enforcement. They will have more paperwork. More things to do. Obviously, more arrests. But I think, rather than looking at the costs, sometimes we have to look at what it may offer us in the long term, which is safer roads and better communities, and that’s what we’re here for.”
An informal rule once prevailed in the sheriff’s office in regard to highway crashes.
“It used to be the golden rule, that if it was after 2 a.m., you could guarantee it was alcohol-related,” he said.
“I think it’s still a significant factor in crashes. It’s still a huge factor in crime. It’s still something that needs to be addressed. We’ve hardly solved the problem.”
Prescription abuses and other forms of drug addiction have all but eclipsed the liquid form of getting a buzz on, but Tanner makes little distinction.
“Alcohol is just another drug,” the sheriff said.
“And it’s put in that classification, and as such, we need to treat it as such.”
In its campaign for a lower BAC, the NTSB has said statistics show that this has dramatically reduced alcohol-linked fatalities in some European nations.
It’s too early to say if anyone in the West Virginia Legislature will seek such legislation, but Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, has said this is likely.
At the same time, Palumbo added, “My guess is there’s going to be a lot more hesitance to go from .08 to .05 than there was from 1.0 to .08.”
Not long ago, the Legislature approved tougher penalties for “aggravated DUI,” when the BAC is above .15. For that, an offender can be jailed as long as six months, lose a license for 45 days, and be compelled to install an ignition interlock device on a vehicle that checks for alcohol for 270 days.
Given the obvious result that a lower BAC would produce more arrests, Tanner dislikes the idea of jailing people for extended periods.
“That is why we have a home confinement program, and I think that’s a better option,” he said.
“I don’t know that people who have had too much to drink necessarily belong in jail and have the county pay the bill for their room and board. I don’t know that that’s particularly appropriate, especially when we have so many alternatives.”
Instead, the sheriff says community service is more viable.
“I would love to see more, if they are convicted of that, getting community service from them and some labor in cleaning up our roads and helping our non-profit organizations,” he added.