June 10, 2013

Restaurant owners, bar managers and patrons in Carroll said a new idea to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit to drive from .08 percent to .05 is bad for business and social drinking.

"We hope it doesn't happen," said Ben Badding, manager at Kerp's Tavern. "People are going to be afraid to go out. People aren't going to want to risk" drinking small amounts of alcohol and driving.

The National Transportation Safety Board reported last month that a driver at .08 percent is twice as likely to get in a crash as one at .05 percent - the limit it recommended state lawmakers to adopt.

"This finding indicates that a major shift in public perception with respect to alcohol impairment is needed," the safety board wrote. "Many people believe that if a driver's (blood-alcohol concentration) is under the legal limit of .08, the driver is safe to drive. In reality, by the time a driver's (concentration) reaches 0.08, his or her fatal crash risk has at least doubled, and some studies indicate it may be many times higher."

Capt. Mark Heino, of the Carroll Police Department, agreed with the board's reasoning.

"I think the science behind lowering the limit is good," Heino said. "There are some studies that pretty definitively show that the lower the alcohol threshold, the safer the highways become."

But some in Carroll think the recommendation to lower the limit goes too far.

"It's a double-edged sword," said Josh Tigges, manager at B&S's 529. "Yes, you want the business, but you don't want anybody to get hurt. You want people to enjoy themselves.

"If you move it from .08 to .05, it might hurt the casual drinker - just getting done with work and want to come in and have one, two beers, just after work to socialize and see people before they go home."

Iowa lawmakers last changed the legal limit to drive in 2003, when it was one of the last states to drop the legal blood-alcohol concentration from .10 percent to .08.

The safety board said the change resulted in up to 15 percent fewer alcohol-related crashes in all states.

Heino said the city police department averages between 50 and 60 drunken-driving arrests each year.

Those who exceed the legal alcohol limit to drive in Iowa can be charged with operating while intoxicated, for which the punishment for a first offense is up to one year in jail, a revoked license and a fine of up to $1,875. Those who are convicted of the crime in Carroll County are most often sentenced to 60 days in jail with 58 of those days suspended.

There has been little legislative feedback on the safety board's proposal from state or federal lawmakers. The last time a limit change was proposed, states were required to adopt the drop from .10 percent to .08 or risk losing federal funding for roads.

Another potential obstacle for restaurant owners and workers if a lower limit is approved is making sure their patrons are within that limit.

"Right now, there are certain things that we look for to basically identify people who we don't want to serve further if they're going to be driving," said John Guinan, owner of the Santa Maria Winery. "We're going to have to find out what the difference is as far as behavior between .05 and .08, but I don't know if short of running a blood test if there's any way for us to do that."

Beyond the problems caused for restaurants, the question remains: will this change reduce the number of drunken-driving incidents?

"The thing is, lowering the limit, I don't know it would help," Tigges said. "I think they'd get more OWIs, but what is the actual limit where you think you're all right to drive?"

Adam Underberg, 37, a general contractor in Carroll who frequents B&S's, said most people are responsible drivers and that the lower limit won't deter those who aren't.

"I don't think it comes down to blood alcohol content," he said. "I think it's down to the person."

Heino doubts the change, if adopted by state lawmakers, would make a big difference in the number of OWI arrests in Carroll each year, but he hopes the discussion pushes drivers to not take chances with alcohol.

"As law-enforcement officers our first interest is public safety, so if we can lower the number of incidents that's fine. We like that," Heino said. "But I think we also recognize that there are some people that might not even reach that threshold that shouldn't be driving. The .05 that's proposed isn't a magic number; it's just a number."