Peter Courtney, the president of the state Senate, plans to introduce a bill in this session of the Legislature to toughen Oregon's drunken-driving laws by reducing the state's legal blood alcohol limit from .08 to .05.
Gov. Kate Brown recently signaled her support for the measure, telling reporters during a recent conference call that it "sounds like the right way to go. ... It make sense for Oregon to take a leadership role on this issue."
Courtney, who introduced a bill as a state representative in 1983 to reduce the limit from .10 to .08 (it passed), said the measure isn't about alcohol — rather, he said, it's all about safety on Oregon's roads. Noting that roughly a third of highway fatalities are alcohol-related, the National Transportation Safety Board in 2013 urged states to adopt the .05 standard, but to date only one state — Utah — has done so, and only recently. And a study by the University of Chicago, which analyzed data from other countries with the .05 standard, concluded that an estimated 1,790 lives could be saved each year if the United States adopted that.
Courtney noted, correctly, that drivers today face more distractions than ever before — and that driving while distracted is dangerous driving. In fact, the number of fatal wrecks on U.S. and Oregon highways, after decades of decline, recently began to spike upward. No one is sure why the number of fatalities is on the rise, but it can't be a coincidence that the upsurge coincided with the advent of cellphones — and the deadly practice of texting while driving. The Legislature has, in recent sessions, stiffened the penalties for motorists who are using their phones while driving, but it's still commonplace to see other motorists yakking away on their phones while behind the wheel.
Which suggests one of the bigger problems with Courtney's proposal: The reason why motorists are still using their phones while driving is because they figure that the convenience of using their phones considerably outweighs the risks that they'll be caught. And let's be blunt: That's probably a reasonable calculation for them to make.
As our Sunday story by Democrat-Herald reporter Jennifer Moody reported, the number of Oregon State Patrol troopers on the road has not even come close to matching population growth in the state. In 1980, according to State Patrol figures, the agency had about 33 patrol troopers for every 100,000 people in the state. Fast-forward to today, and the ratio has dropped to about 8 troopers per 100,000.
If Courtney and other officials want to discourage drunken driving on Oregon roads (and, of course, that's a good goal), a more effective way to do that would be to increase the number of state troopers on patrol. (The State Patrol is pitching a 10-year plan that would return staffing levels to about 15 troopers per 100,000 population, which is roughly the national average, but legislators need to figure out how to pay for that.)
Having more troopers on the road would allow the State Police to focus on the toughest drunken driving cases: A representative of the American Beverage Institute (which, granted, has something at stake here) told The Oregonian newspaper that most fatal crashes involving alcohol are caused by repeat offenders or drivers who have consumed high amounts of alcohol. A spokesman for the institute noted that 70 percent of alcohol-related fatalities involve drivers with blood alcohol content of .15 or higher — and it's not at all unusual to read about a DUII arrest where suspects reported have twice the legal amount of alcohol in their system.
Courtney has acknowledged that his proposal faces an uphill battle, but has vowed to keep plugging away. But here's a case where delay would allow us to see how the law fares in Utah — and also would give us a chance to put more state troopers on the road in Oregon. (mm)