The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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May 16, 2013

State officials react to recommendations by NTSB to lower BAC driving threshold

Proposal would define motorists legally drunk at .05; law now at .08

CHARLESTON — Is legislation for a lower blood alcohol content to ascertain if a motorist is considered drunk in the offing in the West Virginia Legislature?

Already, a push is on by the National Transportation Safety Board to lower the BAC from .08 to .05, and for some, especially the svelte, that means a mere after-work cocktail could justify a night in the local slammer.

For instance, a woman weighing less than 120 would be over the .05 limit after the equivalent of one drink.

Or a man, tipping the scales at 160 pounds, would be considered impaired after a couple of drinks, says the NTSB.

“Certainly, anything that is going to reduce fatalities and injuries on our roadways is worth looking into,” Natalie Harvey, public information spokesperson for the state Division of Motor Vehicles, said Wednesday.

“From a highway safety perspective, we are going to support looking into doing that. We would definitely welcome anything that is going to save lives and reduce fatalities and injuries on our roadways.”

Any move to drop the BAC to .05, of course, would have to come from the Legislature.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said it is possible a legislator would offer such a bill.

“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,” the senator said.

“I know they’ve done that in some of the European countries and it’s made a significant difference. Most of our focus over the last few years has been trying to clamp down a little bit harder on the higher level BAC, where people are above .15.”

That, by definition of the law, is known as “aggravated DUI,” which is saddled with harsher penalties. They include a mandatory jail sentence from two days to six months, a license suspension of 45 days, and the obligatory use of an ignition interlock device on any vehicle driven for 270 days.

“You know, for a lot of people, it’s just like a zero tolerance policy,” Palumbo said of the proposed .05 threshold.

“If you’re a particularly small person, you get to that with one drink. At some point, you just need to decide if it should just be a zero tolerance.”

Palumbo predicted that some states will attempt to impose a lower BAC.

Another consideration would have to be the type of punishment that would accompany a .05 level, the judiciary chairman said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if someone did,” Palumbo said, when asked if he expects a state lawmaker to offer such a proposal.

“There will be some states that will do it. I don’t know if we’ll be the first or not. At the minimum, it will start some more discussion about it.”

Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, an insurance adjuster, said he would be willing to support such legislation, provided there is ample evidence to support the NTSB’s claims that a lower BAC results in a reduction in injuries and deaths in highway crashes.

“If they have significant and accurate research to show this will help with impaired driving, I could support it,” Hall said.

“I think we all want safer highways, but we don’t want to pass legislation just because it feels good.”

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