Two years after losing his 15-month-old son to a drunk driver, mixed martial arts fighter Marcus Kowal is now spearheading efforts to lower the legal intoxication limit for DUIs.
Those efforts culminated in Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, D-Marina Del Rey, introducing Assembly Bill 1713 last month, which would reduce the legal blood alcohol concentration limit from 0.08 to 0.05.
Blood alcohol concentration, or BAC, refers to the percent of ethanol in someone’s bloodstream.
The bill was nicknamed Liam’s Law, after Kowal’s son who died as a result of the crash.
“For every 0.01 that we lower it by, it will save about 800 lives,” Kowal said, quoting research on the topic.
Liam’s aunt Allison Bell took him for a walk, and crossed the street when Donna Marie Higgins drove through the crosswalk, ran over Liam’s stroller, and injured both Liam and Bell on Sept. 3, 2016.
Liam was taken to the hospital, where he died from his injuries a day later.
“She lives today with survivor’s guilt and anxiety,” Kowal said of his sister-in-law. “Just trying to walk across the street is so difficult for her.”
Kowal said that at the time of the arrest, Higgins had a BAC, of 0.12, but official reports said her BAC level was 0.09.
Higgins was charged and convicted of vehicular manslaughter.
Kowal and his wife Mishel Eder formed the Liam’s Life Foundation to raise awareness about drunken driving fatalities, support victims and their families, and raise support for Liam’s Law.
“We made that promise to each other that we would make sure our son didn’t become a statistic,” Kowal said.
The National Motorists Association opposes Liam’s Law on the grounds that most DUI-related fatalities involved a driver with a BAC of 0.10 or higher, citing data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“The issue we are concerned about is setting the BAC limit so low that automatic arrests – and the lifelong stigma associated with a DUI conviction – are happening to drivers who are not impaired and have shown no signs of impairment behind the wheel,” NMA president Gary Biller said in a statement. “Their crime is blowing too high of a number into a breathalyzer.”
The World Health Organization recommends that the BAC limit for DUIs be 0.05 or lower, as the risk of a crash increases significantly upon reaching a BAC of 0.04.
A 2013 analysis conducted by James C. Fell, principal research scientist at NORC at University of Chicago, found that the risk of being involved in a single vehicle crash increased when a driver reached a BAC level of 0.05, and that the risk of being killed in a car crash with BACs of 0.05–0.079 is 7–21 times higher than for drivers with no alcohol in their system.
Fell studied the effect of BAC laws on rates of drunk driving since 1970.
He said that, despite that most drunk drivers involved in a car crash have BACs of 0.10 or higher, a proposal to lower the legal BAC limit will still have a meaningful impact.
“It’s a deterrent,” Fell said. “Anybody who drinks, whether they drink at low levels or high levels, will say ‘I better be careful, they lowered the standard.’”
At a BAC of 0.05, a person loses control of their small muscles and experiences blurry vision, reduced coordination, impaired judgment, and slowed reaction time.
These effects are heightened at a BAC of 0.08, and a person may start experiencing short term memory loss.
At 0.40 or higher, one can risk coma or death, according to American Addiction Centers, Inc.
Arrests can be made for DUIs even if the driver’s BAC level is below the legal limit, as long as the police officer can prove the driver was impaired, said La Verne Police Officer David Weaver.
“If I can smell the alcohol, see blood-shot eyes, and I hear their speech slur, that shows impairment right there,” Weaver said.
Before testing the drivers’ BAC through a breathalyzer, officers conduct three sobriety tests as standardized by the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration.
The first is horizontal gaze nystagmus test: the officer asks the driver to follow an object with his or her eyes, first to the left, then to the right. If the driver is not impaired, then his or her eyes will track smoothly. However, if the driver’s eyes involuntarily jerk, then he or she has horizontal gaze nystagmus – a sign of impairment.
The second test accounts for the driver’s sense of balance, fine motor skills, and focusing abilities.
The driver is instructed to walk heel-to-toe in a straight line.
If the driver cannot focus on the officer’s instructions and on the task at the same time, or if the driver loses balance, then the driver may be impaired.
The third, the one-leg stand test, tests balance and focusing abilities again. The driver is required to stand on one leg and lift the other six inches off the ground.
If the driver lose balance or fails to keep track of multiple tasks – the driver has to count to forty while balancing – then the driver fails this sobriety test.
Weaver said he personally supports lowering the legal BAC limit.
“A lot of people don’t realize it takes a lot to get to 0.08 percent,” Weaver said.
According to the University of La Verne’s Substance Abuse Prevention Program, alcohol leaves one’s body at a rate of 0.015 per hour on average.
However, the number of drinks needed to reach a certain BAC level depends on one’s height, weight and gender.
The website for the University’s SAP program contains links to charts detailing BAC levels for men and women depending on height, weight, and number of drinks, and charts detailing the number of hours needed for one to reach a BAC level of 0.00.
Liam’s Law is now being debated among the assembly committee for public safety.
Aryn Plax can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.