Drunken Driving Limits Threaten Highway Funds


Lives aren't the only thing state Sen. Dale Mahlum (R-Missoula) fears losing if Montana doesn't lower the threshold on blood-alcohol levels that define drunken driving. The state could also lose money.

Montana is one of 14 states that could jeopardize millions of dollars in highway construction funds if state lawmakers don't lower the drunken driving limit from .10 to .08 by Oct. 1, 2003. As the impending deadline and ballooning deficits loom before states, some lawmakers said they feel pressure to act.

"We can't afford to lose these funds, but the biggest thing we can't afford to lose is lives to traffic deaths," Mahlum said.

Both nationally and in Montana, more than 40 percent of traffic deaths in 2001 were alcohol-related, according to the Montana Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), said states that lowered their legal blood-alcohol content level to .08 qualified for additional federal highway funds. Then, in October 2000 Congress made .08 a national standard. If states don't comply they'll lose 2 percent of their federal road money, with the penalty increasing an additional 2 percent each year, up to 8 percent, until 2007, NHTSA officials said, adding that if states enact .08 laws before 2007, they may re-coup forfeited funds.

"Point-oh-eight" laws, as they're commonly called, are in place in 34 states and the District of Columbia.

Lawmakers in Montana and at least three other states Colorado, Delaware and Iowa are considering implementing .08 measures in 2003. Rhode Island lawmakers plan to consider toughening its .08 law, which currently does not meet all federal requirements. During the last decade much of the debate about .08 laws centered around their effectiveness in preventing alcohol-related traffic deaths, but in recent years the debate has shifted toward whether states will lose federal money, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

"Basically, whenever you've got a budget crisis of this proportion it certainly makes any money issue a sore spot," said Jennifer Gavin, a spokeswoman for the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO). "In tight times like these, the things that typically get trimmed are state-funded projects. Nobody wants to leave federal money sitting on the table."

Montana Sen. Mahlum, and legislators in other states, said road money isn't the chief motivation for the bill. But without .08 on the books, Montana would lose $3.8 million for road repair and maintenance projects in 2004 alone. With lawmakers confronting an estimated $116 million budget shortfall for fiscal year 2004, Mahlum says every penny counts.

Facing a budget deficit of more than $800 million for the current fiscal year, Colorado state Rep. Fran Coleman (D-South West Denver) said she's sponsoring a .08 bill because it will bring money, even a small amount, into the state. Colorado's 2 percent loss would equate to about $4.9 million in 2004, according to NHTSA. "In truth, in transportation dollars that's not a lot. It takes at least that much to build a bridge. It takes at least that much to build a mile of highway," Coleman said. "But that's (money) the government wouldn't have to take from elsewhere."

The federal mandate is a motivating factor for states, said Wendy Hamilton, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), a Dallas-based advocacy group that whole-heartedly supports .08 laws. Hamilton said the initial grants offered to states weren't enough to spur legislative action, as few states signed .08 laws into effect before the 2000 mandate.

"But when (Congress) said, no, we're going to withhold your federal funds, states started to act," Hamilton said.

However, not all state lawmakers welcome the federal pressure. Some see the withholding of federal funds as a threat, or "a carrot at the end of the string."

"Frankly, I'm sick of it," said Delaware state Sen. Thurman Adams Jr. (D-Bridgeville), who's expressed concerns about the effectiveness of the .08 bill being considered in the First State's House of Representatives.

But despite his apprehensions, Sen. Adams said he expected the legislation, which also has the support of Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D), to be approved. If not, Delaware would lose out on $1.6 million in 2004.

"I can't speak for other legislators, but if the federal government says they're going to take your money, I'd imagine they'd all be looking at (the bill) pretty hard," Adams said.

The Delaware bill's sponsor, state Rep. Bill Oberle (R-Beecher's Lot), is confident the legislation will win approval.

"Any suggestion that might be construed as a threat from the federal government is looked at with fairly jaundiced eyes, but I think it will ultimately come down to whether legislators think it's right or wrong." Oberle said. "I don't want to sound like I'm disinterested in about two million dollars coming into the state, but that's not the motivating factor behind the bill."

MADD's Hamilton said reducing the limit to .08 has lowered alcohol-related traffic deaths in many states. She estimated that 500 drunken driving deaths would be averted nationally each year if the legislation were enacted in all 50 states.

"We will have fewer white crosses lining the sides of our roads," Mahlum said. 


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