HARTFORD – Of the 295 people who died in traffic crashes in Connecticut in 2020, 118 of them – 40 percent – involved a driver who was drunk beyond the legal limit, according to the most recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Drunk-driving deaths aren’t unique to Connecticut. But nationwide, they account for 30 percent of all traffic deaths, and Connecticut has the third-highest percentage of traffic deaths caused by a drunk driver in the U.S. – less than just Montana [45 percent] and Rhode Island [42 percent].
“What we’ve been doing is no longer working,” Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto told lawmakers on Monday. “It’s time for us to do everything in our power to change the behavior of Connecticut’s drivers. Because that’s what this comes down to. Drunk driving is a reckless choice made by the driver, and we need to make it clear that we will not tolerate drivers making that choice any longer.”
Eucalitto said a “silver bullet” would be for vehicles to be equipped with blood-alcohol sensors, a technology that is being developed with a boost from the 2021 federal infrastructure law. That technology is still 10-15 years away from being widely available, he said.
At present, Eucalitto told lawmakers, the single most effective change Connecticut could make to curb drunk driving would be to lower the legal limit for a driver’s blood alcohol concentration from 0.08 to 0.05.
“You’re impaired at 0.05 [percent BAC],” Eucalitto told lawmakers during a Transportation Committee public hearing in Hartford on Monday, for a bill that would make that change. “The likelihood of a fatal crash is at least seven times higher for drivers with a BAC of 0.05 than for drivers who have no alcohol in their system.”
Pushing states to lower their BAC limit to 0.05 is a key objective of the National Transportation Safety Board, member Thomas Chapman told the committee on Tuesday, with state lawmakers in Connecticut, New York, Washington, Hawaii and North Carolina all considering the change this year.
So far, only Utah has made the change, lowering its BAC limit to 0.05 in 2017. From 2016, the last year before Utah lawmakers approved the lower limit, to the first year it was in effect in 2019 – the rate of fatal crashes dropped nearly 20 percent in Utah, while declining less than 6 percent nationwide, according to a report from the NHTSA.
The reduction in deadly crashes also came without negative impacts to alcohol sales, tourism and tax revenues, according to Chapman in response to some of the major concerns raised by hospitality and alcohol industries in opposing the change.
It also didn’t lead to a major rise in arrests, Chapman said. He said lowering the BAC limit is a “general deterrence,” encouraging drivers to separate the activities of drinking and driving.
State Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, who co-chairs the Transportation Committee, said the current legal limit of 0.08 encourages people to believe they can drink some before driving. He said he still remembers calculations he learned in driver’s education, that someone could drink 1.25 ounces of alcohol an hour to stay below the legal limit.
“I think I have to do math if I want to go out at night and know what is the legal intoxication limit, instead of just being able to recognize that, if I drank I should not drive,” Lemar said. “I think 0.05 sends that message in a way that 0.08 allows me to do wild calculations on the spot.”
Eucalitto said the decline in fatal crashes in Utah began after the lower limit was passed, but before it even took effect, as the state did a major campaign to educate drivers about the impending change.
The NHTSA study found that people thought the law had changed before it did, and they changed their behaviors accordingly. It cited a Utah study that found 22 percent of drinkers said they had changed their behavior to adjust to the new law, including ensuring transportation home after drinking.
Alcohol accounted for more than a third of all traffic deaths in Connecticut from 2011 through 2020 – killing nearly 1,100 people in that time. While alcohol-impaired fatal crashes have declined nationwide over the past two decades, they’ve increased in Connecticut, Eucalitto said.
“For some reason, in Connecticut, drivers are making that different choice than in other parts of the country,” Eucalitto said. “We don’t know why, but it seems to be more acceptable here to drive after having several drinks.”