USFK considers halving alcohol level needed to prompt drunk-driving charge
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — The amount of alcohol it takes to prompt a drunken-driving charge on military bases in South Korea could be halved, according to a policy change U.S. Forces Korea is considering.
The change — if endorsed by USFK Commander Gen. Leon LaPorte — would be stricter than drunken-driving standards in the States. The standard instead would mirror Korean law, according to the provost marshal’s office.
“It’s very restrictive,” said Lt. Col. Chad McRee, USFK’s chief of operations for the Joint Provost Marshal, during an interview in his office last week. “And that’s a good thing.”
Currently, a blood-alcohol count of .10 percent — one part alcohol for every 1,000 parts of blood — is the threshold for drunken driving on U.S. military bases in South Korea. The proposal would change that to .053 percent, McRee said.
The discussion is in the beginning stages, McRee stressed, and has not developed into an official proposal.
The discussion about drunken driving comes on the heels of a change in November in the USFK drinking age from 20 to 21. That change rendered USFK standards stricter than local Korean law, which sets the legal drinking age at 20.
USFK officials said this fall the drinking age was raised to reflect stateside standards.
The drunken driving standard under discussion would fall well below U.S.-based thresholds.
Measures to strengthen drunken driving standards are gaining ground in the States. To avoid losing federal highway money, all 50 states have passed a blood-alcohol threshold of .08 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lower than some states’ previously allowed levels.
In South Korea, McRee said the proposal is part of efforts to ensure safety and readiness for servicemembers.
He said alcohol-related incidents have declined slightly since the drinking age change took effect, though his office did not provide precise numbers for November or December. It’s too soon for the statistics to show trends, he said.
“It seems to be getting a little better,” he said. “Christmas and New Year’s will be real indicators.”
His office did provide information on charges from October 2003 to September 2004 in which a person, as opposed to property, was injured.
Those charges — which range from disorderly conduct and curfew violations to assault and rape — do not necessarily carry additional punishments for alcohol consumption. But alcohol can be a contributing factor, he said, and his office looks at the ages of the people charged in the crimes.
In fiscal 2004, for example, there were 1,676 crimes reported against other people. Of those, 16 percent of the incidents, or 268, involved both alcohol and servicemembers 20 or younger, according to USFK.
Out of the 161 DUIs recorded in the same time, only two involved servicemembers younger than 21, those records show.
Another driving policy passed earlier this year already has had an impact on drunken driving arrests, McRee said.
In April, USFK restricted E-6s and E-7s — staff sergeants and sergeants first class — from driving. That month saw 20 DUI arrests; by September that count had dropped to nine, according to USFK.
Other factors could have contributed to the crime statistics this year, McRee acknowledged. One of the biggest changes on the peninsula, for example, happened when the Strike Force brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division was deployed to Iraq this summer. That cut USFK’s forces of 37,500 by 3,600 soldiers.
When, and whether, the drunken-driving policy would take effect is unclear.
Also difficult to say is how many drinks could be consumed before violating the .053 percent standard. Alcohol’s effects depend, in part, on a person’s gender, weight and other health issues, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Web site.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a chart with guidelines about drinking and driving ability at http://ncadi.samhsa.gov/nongovpubs/bac-chart/.