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.”
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.”
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.”
John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI LLC’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.