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DeKalb County residents split on lowering alcohol limit

Sarah Riccardi knows people who have been charged with drunken driving and people who have died in crashes caused by alcohol.

“It seems people go out and have a drink, and they don’t think about it when getting behind the wheel,” said Riccardi, a 25-year-old Sycamore resident.

As the owner of Fatty’s Pub & Grille, Jeff Dobie also cares about who might be driving while drunk. This is why he has organized his own “drunk bus” that can take people home if they’ve had too much to drink.

“No one wants to encourage drinking and driving,” Dobie said. “That is one of the most foolish things someone can do with their lives.”

They are on the opposite sides of an emerging discussion about lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit for drunken driving. Riccardi favors lowering the limit; Dobie opposes it.

Reducing the legal driving limit from 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content to 0.05 percent was among the 19 suggestions the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board made in May for reducing the threat of drunken driving.

A man who weighs 170 pounds will reach 0.05 percent BAC if he consumes three drinks in one hour on an empty stomach, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. By the same measure, a woman who weighs 137 pounds will reach 0.05 percent BAC on two drinks.

The same man would reach 0.08 percent by consuming four drinks, while the same woman would reach 0.08 percent on three drinks.

Proponents of a change say people with a blood-alcohol content of 0.05 percent are impaired, and say the measure has been proven to reduce traffic fatalities in
Australia as well as European countries including France, Germany, Italy and others.

Opponents say it would effectively criminalize social drinking and could hurt local businesses that rely on alcohol sales for revenue. They also point out that most of the people found to be under the influence in fatal crashes have well above the legal limit of alcohol in their system at the time of the crash.

“The research clearly shows that drivers with a BAC above 0.05 are impaired and at a significantly greater risk of being involved in a crash where someone is killed or injured,” NTSB chairman Deborah Hershman said in a statement.

The NTSB said the number of fatalities caused by alcohol-impaired drivers was less than 10,000 in 2011. In 2012, only one of DeKalb County’s six traffic deaths was the result of alcohol, DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott said.

DeKalb police officers made 229 DUI arrests in 2012, a 46 percent increase from 2011. About 10 percent of those arrests were related to a crash.

In addition to having a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher, Illinois law also defines someone as being “under the influence” if the driver has used an illegal substance or is using medication that impairs him or her.

However, drivers with a BAC between 0.05 and 0.08 can be charged with driving under the influence if additional evidence of impairment is found, according to the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office.

Even with the federal recommendation, it would be up to lawmakers in each state to implement the lower threshold. State Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Hinckley, said he wanted to see more research on the topic before pushing to lower the legal limit.

“You cannot control your vehicle while intoxicated,” Pritchard said. “I don’t think anyone wants to cause an accident. They just think they’re in control when they’re not. I’d rather look at the range of solutions that will get us to the desired outcome, rather than assuming that lowering the blood level will do that.”

It would be at least a year before Illinois lawmakers could tackle the issue.

DeKalb Police Chief Gene Lowery said he did not know how lowering the legal threshold would affect his officers or residents in the area. However, he said he would side with whatever saves lives.

“When you think about consuming alcohol and getting behind the wheel of a vehicle, it’s a ton of metal rolling down the street,” Lowery said. “Any way you’re impaired, the consequences of a mistake could be devastating.”

Factors including a person’s weight, gender and food consumed before drinking, as well as the kind of alcohol consumed, can all influence how quickly a person’s system absorbs alcohol, Lowery said.

Louis Schoenburg, owner of American Liquors in DeKalb, described the efforts to lower the legal limit as extremist and hostile to the hospitality industry.

“The main problem is drivers who drink with significant excess – well above 0.08,” Schoenburg said. “To start arresting and prosecuting moderate drinkers would be a nightmare for the country.”

The Illinois Secretary of State Office’s website listed 0.16 percent as being the most frequently recorded blood-alcohol level for drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2008.

Scott, a supporter of lowering the legal driving limit, said he would support any measures intended to reduce DUI fatalities.

“It’s important to remember,” Scott said, “that officers will have a reason to be pulling them over in the first place.”

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