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Putting down the drinks

Is there a limit to drunk-driving laws?

March 24, 2004|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

Drunk-driving laws have gotten tougher for the last four decades, but they are about to get tougher yet.

Legislators in Virginia are considering lowering the drunk-driving threshold for repeat offenders to .02 blood alcohol level. In Illinois, a state representative has called for a .06 blood alcohol limit for all drivers.

In New York and New Mexico, legislators are considering bills to force every motorist to blow into a Breathalyzer interlock that would stop them from driving if they have had too much to drink.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving on Tuesday called for stricter laws on alcohol when children are occupants in cars, including a recommendation that divorce decrees prohibit either parent from drinking and driving with minor children.

If you think all convicted drunk drivers are losers hanging out in dumpy bars, you are badly mistaken. Last month, the attorney general of Wisconsin was arrested for drunk driving. Even President Bush pleaded guilty to drunk driving in his younger days.

Each year, 1.5 million Americans are arrested for the crime, meaning many, many millions have alcohol violations on their driving records. It has yielded a lot of good, educating the public that drunk driving is a serious crime that puts innocent lives at risk.

But nobody knows how many lives tougher laws can save or whether other highway safety steps -- such as better enforcement of speeding laws -- could save more lives at a lower cost.

Indeed, when the federal government forced states to adopt the current .08 threshold for drunk driving, it claimed 500 lives a year could be saved. The General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, examined that claim and said the estimate was based on flawed research.

Some experts worry that new laws will actually reduce the attention placed on catching highly intoxicated drivers that cause the most deadly accidents. After all, there are only so many police and prosecutors. By some state estimates, it costs $10,000 for every drunk driving arrest, meaning states could be spending $15 billion to prosecute and jail drunk drivers every year. That's about the size of the NASA budget.

Still, legislatures across the nation are embracing new drunk-driving laws.

The Utah Legislature recently passed a measure that would subject drivers with prior drunk-driving convictions to criminal prosecution if they have children in the car and have a blood alcohol level of .05. It is awaiting the governor's signature.

Rep. Dana Love, a Republican in the Utah House who sponsored the measure, said in an interview that she personally believes a zero blood alcohol level should apply to all drivers.

Wendy Hamilton, MADD president, said that the lower limit is effective in deterring problem drinkers from consuming alcohol and then driving. But it isn't just problem drinkers who represent a menace, she said.

"Anybody who drives under the influence of alcohol and has children in the car is putting those children at risk," Hamilton said.

Hamilton is probably correct, but if you apply that standard across the board then motorists jeopardize the safety of children by speeding by five miles over the limit, running red lights, listening to loud car stereo systems, using cellphones and operating navigation systems.

The American Beverage Institute says MADD has a hidden agenda of prohibition and that the Utah legislation, which MADD endorsed, is just the first step in a universal .05 law across the nation.

"It is redefining what drunk driving is," said John Doyle, executive director of the trade group that represents restaurants that serve alcohol. "We are witnessing a move to outlaw a currently legal and socially responsible activity of having a cocktail over dinner."

Other highway experts with no stake in the drunk-driving debate say state and federal regulators should increase efforts to stop speeding, blatantly aggressive road behavior, red-light running and distracted driving. All of these issues have been overshadowed by the political power of the anti-drunk-driving crusade. The number of fatal accidents that involve no alcohol is increasing faster than the number involving alcohol, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures.

As for the idea of the government forcing people to jam a tube in their mouth just to start a car, I can only wonder what is next -- perhaps, a government camera focused on every kitchen wine rack.


Ralph Vartabedian can be reached at ralph.vartabedian@

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