Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste (center) greets a new trooper during a graduation ceremony, as Gov. Jay Inslee looks on in the Rotunda at the Capitol in December 2018, in Olympia. Batiste is among those seeking a reduction of the blood alcohol level for drivers to 0.05 percent. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press file photo)

Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste (center) greets a new trooper during a graduation ceremony, as Gov. Jay Inslee looks on in the Rotunda at the Capitol in December 2018, in Olympia. Batiste is among those seeking a reduction of the blood alcohol level for drivers to 0.05 percent. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press file photo)

Editorial: Lawmakers miss good shot for fewer traffic deaths

Legislation to lower the blood alcohol limit for drivers didn’t get floor debate and vote in Senate.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Some numbers we should be considering: Traffic fatalities in Washington state hit their highest level last year since 1990 with 772 deaths, a 30 percent increase from 2019’s 538 fatalities and a 43 percent increase since 2013’s 438 deaths.

Of those fatalities, nearly half in 2022 — 49 percent — involved drivers who were impaired by alcohol, drugs or both, according to the state Traffic Safety Commission’s data dashboard.

Another number Washington state lawmakers should have given greater consideration during their short 60-day session, as it now nears its March 7 conclusion: 0.05.

That’s the blood alcohol concentration level proposed in legislation that would have lowered the legal blood alcohol level to 0.05 percent from 0.08 percent, the current state standard since it was lowered from 0.1 in 1999. Senate Bill 5002 would have set the lower blood alcohol level for both operation and physical control of a vehicle.

Proposed by state Sens. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, and Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, the legislation’s latest version was first proposed in 2023 and was voted out of the law and justice and transportation committees that year, but didn’t make it past the rules committee. Reintroduced this year, the bill again was left to languish in the rules committee’s “X” file.

Among the legislation that did get consideration by the rules committee and then sent to the Senate floor as a bill deadline approached was legislation to recognize “The Evergreen State” as Washington state’s official nickname. That rankled Liias and Sen. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell, the only two senators to vote against the nickname bill once it reached the floor.

“It’s a waste of time. We should have been talking about .05,” Liias wrote in a text to the Washington State Standard, following the vote.

(Ironically, the nickname legislation wasn’t certain to make it to the House floor for a vote before Friday nights’ final deadline for legislation to pass both chambers.)

Liias, as does any state lawmaker, understands it’s not unusual for bills to take more than a few tries to win passage, if they ever do, especially during a short session, but the case for a lower BAC limit seemed clear to many lawmakers, traffic safety officials and law enforcement representatives.

“We’ve been working hard to try and get the .05 legislation pushed up the hill,” Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste told a conference of editors and publishers in mid-February. “It’s a tough sled, but I’ve said it before, and it’s factual: You can’t continue to do the same thing over and over again and expect different outcomes.”

Lawmakers have tried to do something different, proposing the legislation in 2017, 2022 and 2023.

To bolster the latest push, Liias and other lawmakers, prior to the session, traveled to Finland, one of several European countries — including France and Germany, both known for the cultural importance of their wine and beer — where the 0.05 standard has resulted in significant reductions in traffic deaths.

Finland, with a comparable population — 5.5 million to Washington state’s 7.7 million — has seen its traffic deaths, already lower than Washington’s, decline from 270 in 2016 to 189 in 2022.

The top four reasons for traffic accidents in Washington state are no different than those in Finland: speeding, driver impairment, distraction and not using seatbelts.

“Those happen at much lower levels (in Finland) because of the techniques that they’ve adopted,” Liias told The Herald in December. “We heard loud and clear from them that the single most effective thing they’ve done is they have a 0.05 blood alcohol limit.”

At the same time, Utah — the only state to adopt a 0.05 limit — has seen a nearly 20 percent decrease in fatal crashes, a nearly 11 percent decrease in serious injury accidents and a 10 percent decrease in all crashes on its roads in the 12 months that followed adoption of its law.

Opposition to the bill centered around concerns for bars and restaurants regarding their employees’ ability to discern those who may have been over-served alcohol with the new limit, but supporters of the lower limit hold that the intent of the legislation isn’t to make more arrests but to increase understanding among drivers of the effects of even one or two drinks on their ability to drive.

At 0.05 BAC, again according to the state Traffic Safety Commission, behavior is exaggerated; there’s loss of small-muscle control, such as in focusing eyes; judgment is impaired; alertness is lowered; and inhibitions are relaxed, effects that can add up to an increased likelihood to forget to wear seatbelts, speed and lose attentiveness to distractions, such as phones.

“There are studies that say most people are impacted to some degree with regard to their control over their faculties and their ability to reasonably operate a vehicle at even 0.02,” Batiste said.

Lowering the BAC wasn’t the only tool available to state lawmakers this session. Among a slate of legislation, two bills appear likely to become law, including one that updates policies for deferred prosecution of impaired driving and another that broadens where counties and cities can use traffic safety cameras.

As well, efforts continue to fill vacancies within the State Patrol, county sheriff’s departments and city police departments to get more officers on highways and streets, including funding for a fifth police academy in Snohomish County.

The crush of legislation during a 60-day session is understandable; good bills will get left behind even in odd-numbered years when legislators have 105 days to get work done. It’s all the more reason then to return the next year and give increased consideration to those good bills.

And beyond the duties of lawmakers and law enforcement, there also are responsibilities for those behind the wheel, said Batiste, who marked his 20th anniversary as State Patrol chief on Feb. 14.

“You know what the fatality picture looks like? It isn’t pretty,” he said. “One, we need boots on the ground, and we need people to just do the right thing in terms of how they operate their vehicles.”

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