Connecticut would reduce the blood alcohol threshold for drunken driving from .08 to .05 under a bill advanced last week on a divided vote of the legislature’s Transportation Committee.
The panel voted 21-15 to send the bill to the state Senate for consideration. The proposal, which found support and opposition from members on both sides of the aisle, is one of several bills intended to reduce roadway fatalities following an especially deadly year on Connecticut roadways.
“This is a serious issue,” said Rep. Roland Lemar, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the committee. “The dramatic increase in roadway fatalities suggests that something is off in how we are now treating all of these recreational drugs.”
Lowering the drunken-driving threshold to .05 would put Connecticut in the company of just Utah, which lowered its blood alcohol limit at the end of 2018.
During a public hearing last month, state Transportation Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto told the panel that Utah has recorded fewer crashes and roadway fatalities in the years since its law was adopted.
Connecticut, on the other hand, has experienced an increase in alcohol-impaired fatalities. In 2020, the state ranked third in the nation for the percent of crash fatalities that were caused by drunken drivers, Eucalitto said.
“To be frank, Connecticut has a drunk driving problem,” he said. “We’re one of the worst-offending states in the nation… This is unacceptable. What we’ve been doing is no longer working and it’s time for us to do everything in our power to change the behavior of Connecticut’s drivers.”
Prior to Friday’s vote, the Transportation Committee engaged in a wide-ranging debate over whether lowering the state’s blood alcohol limit was the best method of changing driver behavior.
“You can’t legislate common sense,” said Sen. Tony Hwang, a Fairfield Republican who ultimately voted in favor of the bill, “that’s the debate — the challenge of trying to balance. You’re going to have people challenge that this is too much of a mandate and that we’re going to restrict people’s ability to have a cocktail or two and then obviously the irrefutable evidence of impaired driving’s devastation on our roads.”
Sen. Christine Cohen, a Guilford Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said that the bill was not intended to restrict residents’ ability to enjoy alcohol but was designed to encourage them to choose options like Uber or transit buses rather than getting behind a wheel after they had been drinking.
“We want people to have fun while they’re out there,” Cohen said. “We want people to visit our restaurants and other establishments and enjoy themselves in however way they see fit but we also want people to be safe on our roadways.”
Meanwhile, several of the panel’s Republican members voiced opposition to the bill because it did not address drivers operating under the influence of cannabis, which they argued was a more immediate problem.
“Going from .08 to .05 is fine, but it’s frankly ridiculous when we’ve got such a marijuana problem going on and an inability to address that in testing and what not,” Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan, said. “While I appreciate the good intentions of this bill, I think we are ignoring the biggest problem we have and that’s the marijuana problem.”
Both the committee’s co-chairs agreed that no one should be operating a vehicle after they had consumed either alcohol or cannabis.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers expressed concern that lowering the blood alcohol limit would not effectively reduce the rate of drunken driving in Connecticut. Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, told the committee that he had struggled with alcoholism throughout his life and had been sober for the last 13 years “by the grace of God.”
Reyes, who voted against the bill, said it was a personal decision and not a legislated blood alcohol limit that dictated whether a person would drive while inebriated.
“I believe in my heart that if a person is going to drink and drive, the alcohol level number isn’t going to be the reason that stops them one way or the other,” Reyes said.