Georgia questions need for tougher DUI law

Georgia lawmakers say careful study is needed before the state considers adopting a federal proposal to cut the threshold for drunken driving by nearly half.

With alcohol being a factor in about 4 million drunken driving incidents in the United States annually, a federal safety board Tuesday recommended following the example set in Europe and dozens of other countries that credit a tougher law for a drop in alcohol-related traffic deaths.

The proposal would lower the blood-alcohol level for DUI to .05 from .08. That’s about one drink for a woman weighing less than 120 pounds, two drinks for a 160-pound man.

» Feds urge tougher blood alcohol limits

»  Read Georgia's DUI law

“I would have serious reservations about going below .08,” said Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, who chairs Georgia’s House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. “The .08, I hate to say it, is not impaired to a lot of folks.”

Georgia last changed its blood-alcohol standard in 2001. All states, facing a loss of federal highway dollars, eventually adopted the .08 standard for drivers. At the time, .10 had been the law in Georgia.

A stricter law has not translated into fewer alcohol-related road deaths in Georgia. There were 406 alcohol-related road deaths in Georgia in 2001, the year the state adopted a tougher law. By 2008, that number rose slightly to 416.

But the National Transportation Safety Board notes the share of traffic deaths attributable to drunken driving in Europe was reduced by more than half within 10 years after the standard was dropped to .05, the report said.

Having a substantially stricter law might be needed to make a considerable impact, said Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds, who is also a former police officer. Adopting the .05 standard would influence behavior, he said.

“People would say ‘I might be .05 after a drink or drink and a half, and I’m just not going to run the risk,’” Reynolds said. “So I think that would have some effect on you psychologically. Whereas now you may think you can get by with a drink, maybe two. After lowering it, you can’t.”

A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1 ounce of 80-proof alcohol in most studies.

Alcohol concentration levels as low as .01 have been associated with driving-related performance impairment, and levels as low as .05 have been associated with significantly increased risk of fatal crashes, the board said.

Atlanta DUI lawyer William “Bubba” Head, a nationally recognized leader in DUI defense, said he has been waiting for a stricter law for more than a decade.

“When I got out of law school, the number in Georgia was .15 and I don’t think we’ve evolved that much,” said Head.

While it’s unknown whether a stricter law would dramatically reduce alcohol-related fatalities, Head said he’s sure it would help defense attorneys. First, he would get more clients. Secondly, jurors who see dashboard camera footage of someone who has only consumed one drink but has perhaps violated the law might make for easier acquittals.

“More people will get caught but jurors will look at the police video and see how good the person looks and think, ‘there but for the grace of God goes me,’ ” Head said.

Powell says a lower standard may not be needed. Under Georgia law, a motorist who causes an accident can be charged with DUI if their blood-alcohol level exceeds .04. Also, Powell points out, a motorist’s blood alcohol content – no matter the level – can be considered in a lawsuit.

The NTSB, he said, is advocating a “perfect” solution that doesn’t consider real-world impact.

“This is typical of the federal government,” Powell said. “In a perfect world, we all would have public transit. We would have street cars and trains and we would have buses and taxi cubs. But that’s not the way it is.”

Gov. Nathan Deal’s spokesman referred questions about whether the state should adopt a tougher DUI standard to members of General Assembly.

Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, chairman of that chamber’s Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, said he would want to hear testimony from law enforcement and research what other states do before making any kind of change in state law.

“It’s just not something we’ve discussed,” he said.

The NTSB insists new approaches are needed to combat drunken driving, which claims the lives of about a third of the more than 30,000 people killed each year on U.S highways — a level of carnage that that has remained stubbornly consistent for the past decade and a half, the board said.

“Our goal is to get to zero deaths because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said. “Alcohol-impaired deaths are not accidents, they are crimes. They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will.”

Staff Writers Andria Simmons and Steve Visser and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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