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Pushing the limit: Mixed reaction to recommendation to lower DUI threshold

Published: Tuesday, July 2, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST • Updated: Tuesday, July 2, 2013 11:27 p.m. CST
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(Sandy Bressner – sbressner@shawmedia.com)
Campton Hills Police Officer Jenny Lindgren patrols near Burlington and Empire roads in Campton Hills. The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that all 50 states lower their blood-alcohol level for motorists from 0.08 to 0.05.

Michael Olesen, owner of Stockholm’s microbrewery and restaurant in Geneva, hopes that all of his customers act responsibly and that they are not driving after drinking.

“I don’t know if having a law on the books will change the behavior of those who choose to behave irresponsibly,” Olesen said. “Those who are responsible will continue to be responsible.”

Olesen is skeptical about a recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board that all states lower their drunken driving threshold to a blood-alcohol level of 0.05, as part of a series of suggestions to reduce the number of alcohol-related highway deaths.

The proposal is getting a mixed reaction from Kane County bar owners, lawmakers and police departments. Mike Maridis, manager of Rookies All American Pub & Grill in St. Charles, said the recommendation could cost the restaurant business if it is implemented.

A woman weighing less than 120 pounds can reach a blood-alcohol level of 0.05 after just one drink, studies show.

A man weighing up to 160 pounds can reach 0.05 after two drinks. Maridis said he hoped that patrons would act responsibly, regardless of what the law is.

In Illinois, a driver is considered to be under the influence if that motorist has a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more, has used any illegal substance or is impaired by medication. A driver’s blood-alcohol level is based on the ratio of alcohol to blood or breath. The Illinois General Assembly in 1997 approved lowering the illegal blood-alcohol level from 0.10 to 0.08.

NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said states need to lower the limit to 0.05 to make a dent in the problem of impaired driving.

“Most Americans think that we’ve solved the problem of impaired driving, but in fact, it’s still a national epidemic,” said Hersman in May, in announcing the recommendation. “On average, every hour one person is killed and 20 more are injured.”

According to the NTSB, nearly 10,000 people are killed in crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers every year in the United States, and more than 173,000 are injured, with 27,000 suffering incapacitating injuries.

“The research clearly shows that drivers with a BAC above 0.05 are impaired and at a significantly greater risk of being involved in a crash where someone is killed or injured,” Hersman said.

She noted that 100 countries on six continents have blood-alcohol limits set at 0.05 or lower.

State Rep. Kay Hatcher, R-Yorkville, said she believes the recommendation merits further study.

“I’ve done enough background reading to believe it’s worth investigating further,” Hatcher said. “Our focus should always be public safety.”

Hatcher said state lawmakers might debate the issue soon and that some sort of legislation suggesting the lowered limit might be filed in the next session.

“Between now and then, there should be a lot more data we will have access to,” Hatcher said. “Without data, it’s only an opinion.”

The leaders of local police departments said they want to do what they can to create improved driving conditions. Geneva Police Cmdr. Eric Passarelli said the department is supportive of legislation that makes the roadways safer for pedestrians and drivers.

“If the state of Illinois, through its research, determines that lowering the blood-alcohol level from 0.08 to 0.05 is appropriate, then we will enforce the statute,” Passarelli said.

St. Charles Police Chief James Lamkin said his department didn’t have a strong opinion for or against NTSB’s recommendation.

“Our goal is for people to be responsible and make good decisions, and don’t put themselves and others in harm’s way by drinking and driving,” Lamkin said.

Rita Kreslin, the executive director of Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists, said a lower blood-alcohol threshold could help reduce the number of alcohol-related crashes.

“If the NTSB says that impairment starts at 0.05, we would support that,” Kreslin said.

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