Police recruits Suzanne O and Josiah Maglente-Tonu administer a field sobriety test on a volunteer while DUI Task Force officer Steven Landsiedel watches on March 19, 2021 in the Kihei Police Station parking lot. The 91st Recruit Class members were ending 48 hours of training in impaired-driving enforcement. The Maui News file photo
Supporters of an effort that would lower the legal blood alcohol limit for driving are hoping this will be the year the measure passes at the state Legislature.
For a couple of years, Maui police, community members and advocacy groups have been pushing for the state to lower the blood alcohol limit for driving from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent, with advocates saying a person is impaired at 0.05 percent and pointing to places like Utah, which has seen its alcohol-related crashes decline when that state lowered its threshold to 0.05 percent in 2019.
“We’re just going to keep pushing because if it doesn’t go through this year, I guarantee it’s going to be back again next year,” said retired MPD Lt. William Hankins, the former commander of the police Traffic Section, who has lobbied for such changes over the years.
Hankins, along with community members and those from organizations including the Hawai’i Alcohol Policy Alliance, are organizing a sign-waving event to drum up support from 4 to 5 p.m. along Kaahumanu Avenue fronting Burger King on March 22. A sign-waving was supposed to be held on March 8 but was canceled due to the weather, though similar events occurred on Kauai and Hawaii island that day.
Senate Bill 160, which would define a blood alcohol content of 0.05 or above as being under the influence, was referred to the state House Committee on Judiciary & Hawaiian Affairs on Thursday and was still awaiting a hearing as of Friday afternoon.
Rick Collins, the director of the Hawai’i Alcohol Policy Alliance, which is coordinating the Maui sign-waving event, said that he feels there is more of a chance this year that the measure could pass, as supporters have been more vocal and organized in the media.
They have also been “much more involved” with the legislation and have met with lawmakers whose committees have and probably will hear the bill, including in the House.
Hankins, who continues his role as a member of the State Highway Safety Council, said state senators have been supportive of the change in the past as well as this year, but called on the House to “be brave, do the right thing and step up and protect the community.”
He said politicians should not look at the bill in terms of funds they may lose from opponents of the measure, because “it’s going to be made up in lives saved.”
For families affected by drinking and driving, the change has been too long in coming.
“I am asking you as a tired mom, please, please pass SB 160 because after 14 years nothing has changed and I’m tired and emotional,” said Wailuku resident Andrea Maniago, who lost her 16-year-old son, Kaio Fukushima, to a drunk driver about 14 years ago.
“Something drastically has to change and I feel like this might just be the answer,” she said in written testimony in favor of the bill.
“Let this be the change.”
Collins said in testimony to the Legislature that a December statewide poll by SMS Research showed that more than two-thirds, or 69 percent, of Hawaii voters support lowering the blood alcohol content limit for alcohol-impaired driving from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.
“A 0.05 BAC is supported by strong research evidence and is nationally recommended to reduce alcohol-impaired crashes, fatalities, and related consequences,” Collins wrote.
Supporters continue to point to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study of Utah’s lower threshold, after which its fatal crash rate dropped by 19.8 percent in 2019, the first year under the lower legal limit, and the fatality rate decreased by 18.3 percent.
But others are debating what the lower threshold could do and say there may be unintended consequences.
The state’s Office of the Public Defender presented several reasons why the lower threshold is not needed, including the fact that Hawaii already has a statute which criminalizes drivers whose BAC level is under 0.08 percent. Arrests can be made, people can be charged and a person can be convicted of operating a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant by only presenting evidence of bad driving, showing indications of consuming alcohol such as red, watery eyes or odor of alcohol, along with poor performance of field sobriety tests.
Another reason the office opposes the measure is because it believes the reduction of the threshold “simply casts too wide a net and will result in criminalizing the behavior of normally responsible drinkers without having an impact on reducing alcohol-related fatalities.”
The Public Defenders Office also said the lower threshold has not been widely accepted nationally, as Hawaii would be the only state other than Utah to pass such a law.
The measure would also result in “significantly higher workload for an already overburdened police department and legal system” who may arrest someone who is not a danger to the community, the office said.
The bill has also received pushback from some in the alcohol industry, including local businesses.
Garrett Marrero, testifying on behalf of the Hawaiian Craft Brewers Guild, said the group has a “shared goal of working to eliminate impaired driving on our roads.”
“However, we believe lowering the BAC level without any training or tools to identify an individual who has reached a 0.05 limit would put both our breweries and staff at risk,” Marrero said in written testimony.
Marrero is also the chief executive officer and founder of Maui Brewing Co.
“This bill could be a setback for our local craft breweries already struggling to recover,” he added.
* Staff Writer Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.
- Police recruits Suzanne O and Josiah Maglente-Tonu administer a field sobriety test on a volunteer while DUI Task Force officer Steven Landsiedel watches on March 19, 2021 in the Kihei Police Station parking lot. The 91st Recruit Class members were ending 48 hours of training in impaired-driving enforcement. The Maui News file photo
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