Push could create new drunk driving charge

October 7, 2010 4:29:21 PM PDT
You've heard the saying "Over the limit, under arrest." Now there's a new push to create a new offense that would make that saying truer than ever. As it stands right now, if you're blood alcohol level is .08 or higher, you are considered to be too drunk to drive. But now there's a new push for a new offense aimed at drivers who are within the legal limit but still considered dangerous.

Some call the idea government interference that crosses the line. Yet others say it can help save lives.

Current Texas law makes it illegal to drive with a blood alcohol content of .08 percent. Now, there's a campaign to create an additional law that would make it a crime to drive with even less alcohol in your system.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo is among those supporting the change.

"We have a glaring hole in our system where people that the law presumes to be under the influence, but their cases are being bargained down to non-DWI charges like blocking the roadway or reckless driving," Acevedo said.

If enacted, the law would make it a crime to have a blood alcohol level of just .05-.07. They'd call it DWAI, or Driving While Ability Impaired, a crime the chief says which, opposed to a lesser offense, more accurately reflects that a person was driving after drinking so they can later be punished as such if they do it again.

State Senator John Whitmire, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee chairman, says enacting this lower standard would effectively make it a crime to go out, have a couple of drinks at dinner or a ball game and then drive home.

"I just think the .05 is probably an over reach," Whitmire said. "It's getting pretty close to prohibition."

Whitmire admits something needs to be done to better fix the system of prosecuting those who drive while intoxicated. He says the system is broken, that too many who go to prison receive no treatment and are returned to the streets only to drink and drive again. Those we talked to had polarized opinions of the issue.

"I think it saves lives if they were to lower it, but it may be too drastic," resident Christopher Barnett said.

What they wonder most is how many drinks you could then legally have before driving.

"What's the difference between .05 and .08, 'cause that could be a half of a drink; you just don't know," resident Elizabeth Smith said.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving southeast Texas Interim Executive Director Jennifer Northway says the move could save lives.

"It's important that as a community, we look at ways that we can contribute to creating a safer community," she said.

Still, some worry that such a law would amount to de facto "zero tolerance" on the roads.

"Eventually, anybody that's driving in the city of Houston or anywhere in the state of Texas after 11 o'clock at night, near a restaurant or bar, is going to be susceptible to being stopped, arrested and convicted, because anybody putting any alcohol in their system is going blow something," KTRK Legal Analyst Joel Androphy said.

If that's the case, some business owners worry such a law could put them out of business.

"It's just gonna make it so much more difficult," said Declan Plunket, owner of the bar The Dubliner. "People are gonna go, 'It's near zero tolerance,' so people are gonna say, 'Maybe we should just not go out.'"

Some studies have been done in other countries which have set lower legal limits like this. A source in the DWI division at the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office says the change in those countries resulted in a 10 percent decrease in alcohol-related fatalities.


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