Former state Rep. Quentin "Q" Williams' desk stands as a memorial in House chambers. Mark Pazniokas / CT Mirror

State and federal officials on Thursday joined Connecticut lawmakers, road safety advocates and families of those killed by drunk drivers at the state Capitol in Hartford in support of a bill to lower the legal limit for driving while intoxicated.

Senate Bill 1082 would lower the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) for drivers from 0.08% to 0.05%, bringing Connecticut in line with dozens of countries around the world as well as the state of Utah, which adopted such a law in 2018.

“Research suggests that a 0.05 BAC law would reduce fatal alcohol-related crashes by an estimated 11%,” said Leah Walton, a safety advocate with the National Transportation Safety Board. “In 2019, the year after Utah’s 0.05 BAC law went into effect, the state saw reductions in crash rates overall, as well as reductions in alcohol-involved crashes.”

Bob Garguilo, executive director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s New England region, cited a 2022 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study showing “Utah’s fatal crash rate dropped by 19.8% in 2019, the first year under the lower legal limit.”

He said the law would save lives in Connecticut.

“Being number three in the country [for] the highest percentage of fatalities involving impaired drivers is nothing to be proud of,” Garguilo said. “So I implore our legislators to truly consider leading this nation — following Utah, but lead New England to be the first state to take a step to save lives.”

[COLUMN: Connecticut’s drunk driving problem]

Democratic and Republican leadership of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee attended the press conference in support of the bill.

“We need to make a conscious, cultural and societal shift that impaired driving — whether it be one drink, five drinks or 10 drinks, you are impaired,” said Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, one of the committee’s two ranking members.

But Hwang acknowledged the bill “faces long odds this session.”

Committee co-chairs Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, and Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, each said they would continue trying to win their colleagues’ support but similarly recognized the bill may not make it to the governor’s desk this year.

“I’m hoping to move it forward, but I also recognize that this is a very big bill,” Cohen said. “The magnitude of this and getting people behind it is very difficult.”

“Even if we don’t necessarily have the votes this year,” Lemar said, “we think it’s important that all of the advocates that believe strongly in this initiative come forward.”

The press conference took place one day after House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, told reporters he did not believe the bill could pass his chamber. Ritter was asked again Thursday if he thought it could pass this session.

“I think some members would support it, right, instinctively, and I think some members would say we’re way out of line with other states,” Ritter said.

House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, told reporters Thursday he wasn’t sure the law would be a good idea.

“The issue of blood level alcohol [sic] and its relation to drunk driving, I think all of these accidents, people are far above the limit of 0.08,” Candelora said. “So to suggest that moving it to 0.05 is going to in some way improve Connecticut roadways is, I think, the issue here.”

Candelora also suggested the change may discriminate against drivers based on their weight.

“A petite woman who has one glass of wine probably would be over the legal limit now, whereas a six-foot man would not,” Candelora said. “So I think there is a genuine concern: Is this going too far?”

The discussion is taking place against the backdrop of two high-profile incidents involving state lawmakers driving drunk.

In March, Rep. Robin Comey, D-Branford, was arrested after flipping the car she was driving in Hartford. In January, a wrong-way driver under the influence of both alcohol and THC crashed into a car being driven by Democratic Rep. Quentin Williams of Middletown. Both drivers died; a state police report released this month revealed Williams, too, was driving drunk on his way home from Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s inaugural ball at Hartford’s Bushnell Theater.

Lamont has said he, like Connecticut Transportation Commissioner Garrett Eucalitto, supports the bill and would sign it if it reached his desk.

This story was first published May 18, 2023 by Connecticut Public.