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New Law Targets Underage Drinking Drivers


SACRAMENTO — Gov. Pete Wilson has signed legislation cracking down on underage drinkers caught driving with even a trace of alcohol in their blood.

The bill, by state Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco), will result in an immediate, one-year drivers license suspension for anyone under age 21 who drives with a blood-alcohol content of .01 or greater.

Citing a rising toll of teen-age deaths attributed to drinking and driving, Wilson said: "We cannot wait any longer to send this message: You use, you lose."

The new law will enable police officers, after lawfully stopping a young driver, to order a field sobriety test with a hand-held instrument to screen the driver's blood-alcohol content. A driver suspected of violating the new law would be taken to a police station for a blood or urine test.

Anyone who refuses to take the preliminary roadside test could have their drivers license revoked on the spot.

The bill allows the driver to appeal within 10 days to the Department of Motor Vehicles to contest the suspension or to obtain a restricted license if they have a critical need to drive.

Under current law, adult drivers are presumed to be under the influence of alcohol if their blood-alcohol content is .08 or greater. The standard for drivers 16 to 18 is .05.

"This closes a potentially deadly hole in the current law that says to youths under 21: 'It's OK to drink and drive,' " Wilson said.

The bill was criticized by California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a civil rights group, which said the measure was overly restrictive and could backfire by removing an incentive teen-agers have to stop drinking before their senses are impaired.

"You're saying a kid is just as guilty if he has one beer as if he has six, just because he's driving," said Melissa Nappen, a lobbyist for the group. "This does not target drunk drivers. The point of drunk driving laws is not that people shouldn't drink and drive, it's that people should not drive under the influence."

The legislation is expected to cost about $1 million annually to administer. That cost is to be underwritten by a $100 surcharge on people who reapply for a drivers license after the one-year suspension.

Also Thursday, Wilson also signed legislation to require anyone riding in the back of an open pickup or flatbed truck to wear a seat belt or safety harness--a requirement that has applied to animals.

"This bill will help improve traffic safety, reduce the carnage we see on the highways and bring a little sanity and safety to the state's vehicle code," Wilson said in a statement.

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