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Drunk-Driving Reforms Stir Safety Debates

As Pennsylvania lowers its limit, groups push for higher penalties and zero-tolerance laws.

October 02, 2003|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

After a radical transformation of the nation's drunk-driving laws in recent years, a new battle is shaping up over just how the federal government can reduce some of the roughly 17,000 highway deaths every year that involve alcohol.

Congress is expected in the coming months to reauthorize national transportation funding covering the next six years, and a major restructuring of drunk-driving policy is likely to occur.

"There is a schism between all of the highway safety organizations about drunk-driving policy," said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Assn., a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of state organizations. "This is a lot more complicated than just saying you are against drunk driving."

Several states this week, facing the threat of losing federal highway funding, completed significant reform of their laws.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell signed legislation Tuesday lowering the legal blood-alcohol level in his state, following similar action in Louisiana and other places. Now, all but five states have set a maximum alcohol level of 0.08%, down from 0.10% or 0.15% in years past.

Colorado, Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey and West Virginia continue to permit driving at a 0.10% blood-alcohol level, despite the risk of losing millions of dollars in federal highway funding. For example, Rendell said that by signing the legislation, his state avoided losing $11.8 million this year. Those states that have yet to lower their limits will have a chance to recoup lost funding if they come into compliance later.

But the push for reducing blood-alcohol limits has yielded mixed success. Even as states have reduced legal levels, highway deaths associated with drunk driving have begun to creep up. There were 16,572 such deaths in 1999, but 17,419 in 2002. And there are deep disagreements over where to go next.

On one side are safety advocates who say greater emphasis should be placed on catching and prosecuting highly intoxicated drivers, who cause the majority of fatal accidents. But others favor continuing to emphasize the message that all drinking and driving can impair safety.

The Century Council, a distillers-sponsored group that has taken a major role in the drunk-driving debate, will issue a report today that asserts highly intoxicated drivers with blood-alcohol levels over 0.15% cause the majority of alcohol-related fatal accidents.

The group wants states to enact laws that raise criminal penalties for repeat offenders, impose harsher penalties for drivers caught with higher alcohol levels and require mandatory testing when police suspect a driver is impaired. Currently, only 28 states impose tougher penalties for drivers who test significantly above the 0.08% standard. And some states allow drivers to refuse breath or blood tests with impunity.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving has said it is seeking to establish a $1-billion annual fund dedicated to combating alcohol-related highway fatalities, up from $123 million in 2001. The group also wants expanded enforcement, improved data collection and national standards that would outlaw open containers in vehicles.

The Bush administration has proposed strengthening and consolidating its existing grants to states, focusing on those with the highest rates of alcohol-related deaths.

The alcohol industry says it is trying to preserve the right of individuals to consume a couple of drinks and drive legally. But that position is increasingly at odds with federal regulators and other groups, such as MADD, that have pushed for lower limits on drivers and have advocated what seems to be a zero-tolerance policy.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is currently running a public awareness program under the slogan "You Drink, You Drive, You Lose" -- suggesting that drivers should avoid all alcohol. Jeffrey Runge, chief of the safety administration, has said that drivers are impaired after the first sip of alcohol.

MADD and federal officials have denied allegations that they are advocating a zero-tolerance policy, though they also argue that medical research shows any alcohol in a driver's system can impair judgment.

"There are certain groups that would prefer another stab at prohibition," said Bill Georges, senior vice president for the Century Council. "They say they are for 0.08% laws but oppose drinking and driving. Well, that's a slippery slope. Focusing on a guy who has one drink of wine at dinner is not the best use of resources."

John Bobo, director of the National Traffic Law Center at the nonpartisan American Prosecutors Research Institute, agreed that a small minority of repeat offenders represents the largest part of the drunk-driving problem in the country.

"The majority of Americans can drink without causing problems," Bobo said. "But there is a minority of chronic offenders who are committing a large number of the crimes."

Other countries have pushed harder against drunk driving without compromising the freedom of individuals to drink, he noted. France, for example, has set a 0.05% blood-alcohol limit for drivers, though the French consume more than three times as much alcohol as Americans.

Still other groups have argued that federal safety regulators have put all of the emphasis on seat belt compliance and drunk driving, ignoring such key issues as speeding, aggression and drowsiness.

The Partnership for Safe Driving, a Washington-based safety advocacy group, has argued for more funding for local traffic enforcement.

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