By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — A new national report recommends that states lower their blood-alcohol content limits to .05 in an effort to better combat drunken driving, but Michigan lawmakers aren’t stampeding to do it.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) applauded the report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, saying many of the conclusions — like tighter sales restrictions to already-drunk persons — affirm the organization’s goals.
However, MADD disagreed with lowering the legal limit, saying there are “better, more effective pathways” to eliminating alcohol-related crashes.
The organization is not actively against lowering the state’s limit to .05, according to Angel Harris, victim services manager for Michigan MADD.
MADD doesn’t argue that a .05 limit “wouldn’t make a difference,” Harris said. “What we’re saying is that we don’t really know because there hasn’t been enough information gathered. The only state that has done that so far is Utah, and it just went into place.”
The Utah legislature voted to lower the state’s threshold to .05 last year.
MADD says the organization would rather focus its efforts on preventative measures like ignition interlocks, which require convicted drunken drivers to take a Breathalyzer test before their car will start.
A bill by Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, would mandate that first-time convicted drunken drivers use an interlock for at least 90 days or have their license suspended. Repeat offenders would be required to use the interlocks for even longer. The bill is pending in the House Judiciary Committee.
“The reason that the all-offender interlock law is being focused on more so at this time is because it’s already been passed in 30 states,” Harris said. “We’ve seen statistics from those states that show a decrease in the number of drunken driving offenses, the number of fatalities, the number of repeat offenders.
“There’s information out there that can show us the difference it makes to have that law,” she said.
Kesto said having an interlock law would let offenders keep their licenses, allowing them more opportunities for employment.
“People make mistakes, and we don’t want them to continue to do that, so that interlock will keep the streets safe,” Kesto said. Offenders “can keep their jobs, because they’ll be able to have transportation to get back and forth.”
MADD ranks Michigan as one of the worst states when it comes to drunken driving laws, due in part to the state’s lack of an all-offender interlock law.
It was the second-lowest scoring state for 2018, receiving one star out of a possible five. Only Montana scored lower, receiving a half-star.
Bill Amundsen of the Michigan Council on Alcohol Problems (MICAP) said the Legislature gets a low rating from his organization as well when it comes to curbing drunken driving.
Citing the influence of beer and wine distributors on legislators, Amundsen said Michigan has long seemed more interested in widening access to alcoholic beverages than preventing alcohol-related crashes.
“We try to encourage them to do better beverage alcohol public policy,” Amundsen said. “What they seem to follow is the hospitality industry.”
Amundsen said that getting Michigan to enforce a .05 limit has been a goal for MICAP and is now more realistic since Utah lowered its own threshold.
While the National Academies report concluded that the .08 limit isn’t low enough, it was uncertain as recently as five years ago whether Michigan’s limit would remain even at that level.
When Michigan reduced its limit from .1 to .08 in 2003, that legislation included a “sunset clause” that would return the limit to .1 in 2013. However, as the original deadline neared, the Legislature delayed it to 2018, later delaying it further to 2021.
Kesto, who sponsored the latest extension, said allowing the limit to revert to .1 would have cost Michigan federal funding. Co-sponsors of that extension included Reps. Holly Hughes, R-Montague, and Eric Leutheuser, R-Hillsdale.
According to the Michigan Department of Transportation, failure to comply with the federal standard of .08 could have cost the state $50 million a year in federal highway aid.
“I think it has been successful, because number one, you have people who are less intoxicated on the roads,” Kesto said. “But don’t forget, number two, we get federal funding as well to help maintain and fix roads.”
While the Legislature as a whole doesn’t receive high marks from MADD for its efforts on drunken driving, Kesto is an exception. He’s been named a “Legislator of the Year” by the organization three times: first in 2013, for his efforts to extend the .08 limit, and again in 2016 and 2017.
Kesto said he hadn’t seen “concrete data” to back up the National Academies study but is aware of other states possibly looking to reduce their limit.
Kesto said while reducing legal limits may make roads safer, only one legal limit would eliminate drunken driving: 0.00.
“You can make the assumption that .08 should go down to .05 so you have less intoxicated people, but it’s not about getting less intoxicated,” Kesto said. “You should be aiming for triple zeroes.”
By MAXWELL EVANS