AUSTIN — Texas is tough on drinking and driving, but not tough enough, according to new research.
A Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute national poll shows that 54 percent of Americans approve lowering the legal blood alcohol concentration — BAC — while driving from .08 to .05.
But in Texas, 60 percent support lowering the legal limit while driving from .08 to .05, according the study, and 48 percent of Texas respondents wanted to set the limit at 0.0 percent, vs. 46 percent nationally.
“That’s the one that shocked everybody,” said Dr. Arthur “Tim” Garson Jr., director of the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute. “I would be guessing just like you would be: why is that?”
In January, Utah will become the first state to begin enforcing a .05 limit, but whether or not Texas lawmakers will consider a similar move remains to be seen, support for a change notwithstanding.
The Texas researchers polled 1,000 people here and 3,000 in 49 other states.
“The methodology is real,” Garson said. “One thousand Texans is a very good sample size.”
Weatherford Police Chief Lance Arnold said he has specific expertise in the area of BAC as a former Drug Recognition Expert instructor and Standardized Field Sobriety Tests instructor.
“I think the question is really one of impairment and inability to operate a motor vehicle safely regardless of the BAC limits. I have conducted hundreds of alcohol workshops while training police officers in field sobriety testing. I have seen people be impaired at .04 and I have seen people not be impaired at .08,” Arnold said. “The problem really is two-fold. A blood or breath alcohol concentration is a very objective number.”
Arnold said the definition of Driving While Intoxicated isn’t just about the number, but also includes lack of mental or physical facilities by reason of introduction of alcohol or any substance into the body.
“The job of the officer becomes even more difficult when dealing with drivers who may be impaired by drugs or other substances and may have no alcohol in their system,” Arnold said. “That is why it is vitally important that officers use their experience and training along with standardized and validated field sobriety tests to look for signs of impairment.”
Hudson Oaks Detective Dustin Kennedy said lowering the BAC level would help keep more drunk drivers off roads.
“By lowering the BAC to .05 it will allow for the enforcement of driving while intoxicated to be more stringent; thus, taking more impaired drivers off the public roadways,” Kennedy said. “Intoxication is different for every individual that consumes alcohol. Everyone has a different tolerance and that tolerance is based off of many factors. If you have had alcoholic beverages and feel even the slightest effects, call a ride and make the roadways a safer place for everyone. With the resources that are now readily available with the various ride share companies, it is safer and far cheaper to call a ride.”
Jaime Gutierrez, regional executive director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said his organization is “waiting to get more research, more data,” before making a decision on supporting or not supporting a change to .05.
“We have other legislation that we’d like to support,” Gutierrez said. “The reality is, we’re in the month of October; it’ll probably be like, December when bills start to take shape.”
Research shows that cutting BAC — blood alcohol concentration — deters alcohol-related crashes.
“The meta-analysis of international studies on lowering the BAC limit in general found a 5 percent decline in non-fatal alcohol-related crashes, a 9.2 percent decline in fatal alcohol-related crashes from lowering the BAC from .10 to .08, and an 11.1 percent decline in fatal alcohol-related crashes from lowering the BAC to .05 or lower,” according to a 2017 report by J. Fell and M. Scherer in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. “The authors estimated that 1,790 lives would be saved each year if all states adopted a .05 BAC limit.”
A group of Brock parents — whose four daughters were killed when a drunk driver hit them head-on in 1998 — were able to successfully lobby to lower the BAC level while driving to .08. At the time of the incident, the BAC limit was .10 and the man who pleaded guilty, Ricky Carter, had a BAC level of .16.
The American Medical Association and the British Medical Association support a .05 BAC law.
Nichole Minard, general manager and partner of The Draft Bar in Huntsville, said she’s “neutral” on dialing down the limit, but has reservations about proprietors’ ability to monitor consumption.
“I have 150 people in here,” but only six waitresses and two bartenders to keep tabs on them, Minard said. “You don’t know when that person hits .08.”
Still, advocates for change call .05 BAC a reasonable limit.
“A .05 BAC is not a glass of wine or two with dinner,” Fell wrote in a summary of the research. “It takes at least four drinks for the average 170-pound male to exceed .05 BAC in two hours on an empty stomach (three drinks for the 137-pound female).
“The BAC level reached depends upon a person’s age, gender, weight, whether there is food in their stomach, and their metabolism rate. No matter how many drinks it takes to reach .05 BAC, people at this level are too impaired to drive safely.”
Several European nations use a .05 BAC limit, with nations such as Sweden, Norway, Japan and Russia putting the number at .02 BAC.
It’s been more than 15 years since the federal government incentivized states to adopt .08 BAC.
Federal legislation in 2000 tied highway construction funding to passing a .08 state law, with states that failed to implement .08 BAC by 2004 losing a percent of funding annually.
Texas cut the presumptive level for intoxication in DWIs as of September 1999 from .10 to .08, according to a Texas Paralegal Journal report.
As Allen Place, a Gatesville attorney and lobbyist for the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association recalls, the state in earlier years set the limit at .15 BAC.
“It’s a political-science experiment,” as far as setting BAC limits, Place said. “In a 50-year history of Texas, it’s been reduced by over almost half.”
As for changing the limit, Place said “it takes time,” for such things to work their way through the Capitol.
“The (legislative) session is right around the corner,” Garson said. “If this is what Texans want, it would be really interesting to provide the data to an advocacy group.”
Weatherford Democrat reporter Autumn Owens contributed to this report.