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Two drinks and you'd be driving drunk

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A bill afoot in the Oregon Legislature could spell trouble for those who drink a couple of beers before getting behind the wheel.

The proposal would lower the legal limit from .08 percent blood alcohol content to .05 percent.

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said she hasn’t yet weighed the merits of the bill, but she isn’t sure lowering the legal limit would make a significant difference, since police officers already can arrest a person who’s driving impaired even if his blood alcohol level is below the limit.

“I’d like to see the science behind (lowering the limit),” she said.

Utah was the first state to lower the blood alcohol limit to 0.05 as of Dec. 30, and Oregon legislators have drafted a similar bill that will be taken up this session.

According to the American Beverage Institute, a 180-pound man would need to consume about four drinks to reach the current limit, while the same man would reach 0.05 after just over two drinks during the same period. Women generally have a higher blood alcohol level with fewer drinks. A drink is defined as 1.25 ounces of 80-proof liquor, a 12-ounce beer or a 5-ounce glass of wine.

The Utah law has been criticized by the American Beverage Institute, which says it won’t save lives but instead targets social, moderate drinkers. Check out Mail Tribune's story on new laws around the country:http://mailtribune.com/news/happening-now/new-state-laws-affect-birth-to-death-_-and-of-course-taxes.

“We want to make sure we’re actually accomplishing something through this legislation,” Marsh said.

There has been considerable data that show drivers have driven drunk dozens of times before they actually get pulled over, Marsh said.

“Does this legislation allow us to catch those drivers?” she said. “Why are people who should be pulled over not being pulled over?”

Marsh said Oregon and other states have come a long way in the past 20 years in grappling with the issue of drunken drivers and putting effective laws on the books to deal with them.

“It’s not OK to push those limits without some science behind it,” she said.

The legislation is being backed by Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. Countries such as Australia, Japan and most of Europe have dropped the blood alcohol limit to 0.05 percent or lower.

Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau said all the tests his department conducts at roadside are based on the 0.08 threshold, but his officers also have arrested drivers who have blood alcohol levels of 0.06 or 0.07 percent.

“It somebody fails the roadside tests, they’re impaired to drive,” he said.

He said the level of intoxication varies from individual to individual, with body weight, height and gender being factors.

Police also take into account disabilities, age or other factors that might limit the effectiveness of the tests.

Medford police conduct eye and walking tests to determine the level of intoxication out in the field. Under Oregon law, they can use a breath test only while at the police station.

Typically, an officer waits about 15 minutes after someone is brought into the station before the test is performed to help rule out any false readings. Taking one shot of whiskey before getting into a car isn’t likely to produce a blood-alcohol level exceeding the limit, Budreau said.

“Somebody has to drink a lot to reach 0.08 percent,” he said.

Budreau said he couldn’t comment whether reducing the level to 0.05 percent is a good idea because his department needs to refrain from commenting on political matters.

If the legislation passes, he thinks his officers could adapt pretty quickly.

“I don’t see how it could have too big of an impact on us,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Sgt. Don Lane demonstrates an impairment test in Medford on Friday. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune