BLOOMINGTON — A government panel is proposing to lower the drunken-driving threshold to reduce traffic deaths, but local law enforcement officials say they will wait for more information before determining how the change would affect them.

A government-commissioned report by a panel of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recommends lowering the blood alcohol content from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent. The move would help eliminate the “entirely preventable” 10,000 alcohol-related driving deaths in the U.S. each year, the report said.

As of yet, there is no serious discussion of lowering the BAC limit in Illinois, although it has been discussed previously. While all states have 0.08 thresholds now, a Utah law passed last year lowers the state's threshold to 0.05 on Dec. 30, 2018.

“I really don’t have enough information yet, but this is something that will be studied" by the Illinois Association of Chief of Police and other law enforcement agencies, said Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner. “As the law reads, you can get arrested now for drinking and driving even if your BAC registers below 0.08 if the officer feels you are impaired.”

Likewise, Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner said he will wait for further studies.

“I know when Illinois lowered the legal limit from 0.10 to 0.08 there was considerable discussion, along with documented research and support from organizations" such as the Illinois police chiefs and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, he said.

McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage also deferred comment until more information was provided through the Illinois Sheriffs' Association.

McLean County State’s Attorney Jason Chambers said his office will enforce whatever law is adopted.

“Plenty of folks are impaired at a BAC lower than a 0.08,” he said. “That is why the law currently says that if you are over 0.08 you are impaired and if you are under 0.05 you are presumed unimpaired. But between 0.05 and 0.08, under Illinois law, it is a gray area.

"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration manual does indicate that any amount of alcohol affects our ability to drive, including reaction time,” Chambers said.

Chambers believes such a law could lead to more people driving in violation of the laws governing driving under the influence.

“I also think that DUI arrest numbers, to a large degree, are enforcement driven,” he added. “In 2016, we had a significantly higher number of DUI arrests and charges than either 2015 or 2017. But that was because a few police agencies made a concerted effort to increase DUI enforcement in 2016.

"Our cases would increase until people realize there is less tolerance.”

The federal panel also recommended that states significantly increase alcohol taxes and make alcohol less conveniently available by reducing the hours and days alcohol is sold in stores, bars and restaurants. Research suggests a doubling of alcohol taxes could lead to an 11 percent reduction in traffic crash deaths, the report said.

Alcoholic beverages have changed significantly over the past 25 years, the report said. They are cheaper, come in more varieties and are advertising much more heavily, the report said.

Variations in serving sizes and the increasing popularity of mixes, especially energy drinks containing caffeine, make it harder for drinkers to judge how much alcohol the have consumed. 

The general rule of thumb is that two standard drinks in the first hour will raise your BAC to 0.05 percent, and one standard drink per hour thereafter would maintain that level.

Since 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board has called on states to reduce the legal BAC for drivers from 0.08 to 0.05. The agency cites research that shows the risk of a fatal crash more than doubles by the time someone reaches the current drunken-driving limit.

The report points out that "alcohol-impaired driving remains the deadliest and costliest danger on U.S. roads," accounting for 28 percent of traffic deaths. Each day, 29 people in the U.S. die in alcohol-related crashes and many more are injured.

Forty percent of those killed are people other than the drunken drivers.

Follow Kevin Barlow on Twitter: @pg_barlow

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