Legislation introduced by a bipartisan group of Washington lawmakers would reduce the percentage of blood alcohol concentration (BAC) legally determined to deem a driver “impaired” under state law from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent, the NW Daily Marker has learned.

While the move will likely be cheered by anti-drunk driving campaigners, red flags are privately being raised by some critics that the bill will do nothing significant to address impaired driving in Washington State. In addition, there are concerns among some in the winery industry that the bill sets the BAC percentage deemed to constituted “impaired” so low that a number of drivers who patronize wineries, especially, could inadvertently find themselves to be driving drunk for the purposes of the law when they have consumed a very modest amount of alcohol.

The first concern, to do with “stoned” or “high” driving, stems from the fact that while breathalyzers can easily detect if someone is driving drunk, no viable technology exists to determine if someone is driving high on marijuana or a variety of other substances. For example, tests to ascertain marijuana use can display positives days or even weeks after a product was used, and no technology equivalent to breathalyzers but designed to detect recent drug use by drivers exists. This is already a concern that has been raised by law enforcement in connection with decriminalization and legalization of drugs and traffic safety. In the wake of drug decriminalization and legalization, traffic accidents have gone up, per the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The second concern stems from the fact that, per alcohol industry experts, a 0.5 percent BAC would mean that for a person weighing in the range of 100 pounds—small but not inconceivably so for some adult women—a single glass of wine would put them over the legal limit. A change in the law therefore could impact wineries in the state that oftentimes cater to groups of women doing all-day or multiple-day tours, where a greater percentage of participants would likely be of a lower body weight than equivalent tours of men. 

According to November 2020 data from Gallup, 11 percent of women surveyed said they weighed 124 pounds or less—a small percentage, but one that nonetheless underlines how some women could be caught unaware that they are “driving drunk” if they consume a glass of wine at a winery before hitting the road to another destination.

The bill’s trajectory is unclear at present. However, it does underline one of the major challenges that changes in Washington’s drug laws presents: Law enforcement is well-equipped to enforce anti-drunk driving laws, but badly-equipped to stop people from driving stoned or high. 

[image credit: Jason Doiy, iStock]