States Step Up Efforts To Curb Drunk Driving
By Bair S Walker , Senior Writer
WASHINGTON - Alcohol-related traffic fatalities are declining nationwide, but that hasn't kept a number of states from working to slam the brakes on drunkem driving. Tactics range from seizing offenders' cars to lowering blood alcohol limits to publicly shaming people convicted of driving under the influence. Aside from the obvious public policy considerations, states are motivated by a desire to safeguard federal transportation dollars that would be lost by not addressing the drunk-driving problem.
Advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving are delighted by the attention driving-under-the-influence issues are receiving. On the other hand, alcohol beverage lobbies and civil rights organizations warn that some of the measures deprive people of constitutional rights.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 16,189 alcohol-related fatalities took place in 1997, representing a 32 percent reduction from the 23,641 alcohol-related traffic deaths in 1987.
Texas had the highest number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in 1997, with 1,748, according to NHTSA. California reported 1,314 deaths, Florida 934, Pennsylvania 631, Illinois 587.
Vermont had the lowest total of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in 1997, 34, followed by Rhode Island and Alaska, which both reported 41.
Although traffic fatalities have been decreasing, in some states like West Virginia the number of people arrested for drunken driving has been increasing. West Virginia had 11,000 DUI arrests in 1998, according to its Department of Motor Vehicles.
Among the weapons being used in the drunken-driving war:
- The Texas Senate passed a bill this month that would lower the unlawful level of blood alcohol from .1 percent to .08 percent. The legislation would allow Texas to avoid losing $26 million in federal transportation funds.
- A New Mexico House committee passed a measure that allows repeat drunk drivers to drive only if their cars are equipped with an ignition interlock. The driver must blow into the device, which determines his or her blood alcohol level.
- Michael Martone, a district judge in Troy, Mich., has begun ordering drunk drivers to attach bumpers stickers to their cars that say: "Drunk Driving, you can't afford it."
- A Houston judge sentenced a drunk driver involved in an accident that killed two people to stand outside a bar for five days, holding a sign alerting passersby to his crime.
- West Virginia is examining a bill requiring drivers convicted of drunken driving to carry a special decal on their license plate or driver's license.
- New York City has a much-publicized law allowing for the seizure of cars belonging to drunken drivers. The law went into affect this month and civil libertarians have vowed to challenge its constitutionality.
- Louisiana Governor Mike Foster is thinking of following New York's lead by proposing legislation that would allow his state to impound cars driven by intoxicated drivers.
- New York state lawmakers are looking at a bill that would dot heavily traveled roadways with signs marking the locations of traffic fatalities involving alcohol or drugs. Along with the words "Don't Drink and Drive," the signs would include the names of those killed.
Jeff Becker, a spokesman for the Beer Institute, says drunken driving is "a problem for the industry, and it gives us a black eye." He says his organization has contributed millions of dollars to server training programs and media campaigns advocating designated drivers.
In Becker's view, some of the measures being used to fight drunken drivers are "draconian," specifically laws impounding cars of first-time offenders. And he is skeptical of efforts to lower blood alcohol thresholds from .1 percent to .08 percent.
"Repeat offenders are generally driving with blood alcohol levels in excess of .15," Becker says. "Most of the public gets it -- that's why the problem is in decline."
MADD national president Karolyn Nunnallee, on the other hand, enthusiastically backs .08 percent. "Research has proved that everyone is impaired at .08. Everyone," says Nunnallee, whose 10-year-old daughter, Patty, died along with 26 other children when a drunken driver hit their school bus in Kentucky in 1988.
"I think the country is screaming to have our roads made as safe as possible," Nunnallee says.
According to NHTSA, a 170-pound man would have to drink slightly more than four 12-ounce beers within one hour on an empty stomach to achieve a .08 blood alcohol level. For a 137-pound woman, the .08 threshold would be reached after only three beers.
A congressional effort last year to make .08 percent blood alcohol the nationwide standard failed. A number of states have already taken the initiative without waiting for Congress.
At the beginning of the year, the state of Washington officially lowered its legal blood alcohol limit from .1 percent to .08 percent. It joined California, Illinois, Idaho, Alabama, Utah, Oregon, Maine, Vermont, North Carolina, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Florida, Massachusetts, Virginia and Hawaii.
The remaining 35 states, and the District of Columbia, have a 0.1 percent blood alcohol level as the legal threshold of intoxication.
NHTSA has performed research showing that key driving functions are impaired as low as .02 to .04 blood alcohol concentration.
In Canada, .08 percent is considered an unlawful level of alcohol in the blood. The same holds true in throughout much of Europe, where Austria, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain and Switzerland have .08 laws on their books.
The standard dips to .05 in Belgium, Finland, France, Greece, Netherlands, Norway and Portugal, and .02 percent in Sweden.
MADD and other proponents of a .08 U.S. standard have run into a brick wall in some states. An example is Minnesota, where MADD has lobbied for three years to have the blood alcohol concentration lowered from .1 percent. The measure died in Minnesota's Legislature last week.
And in Iowa earlier this month, Republicans publicly belittled a .08 percent bill pending in a state Senate committee.
Whether a state has a .08 percent or .1 percent blood alcohol standard, keeping track of abusers and keeping them from driving poses another problem. Michigan recently concluded that its courts weren't adequately reporting convictions of driving violations, including drunken driving, allowing dangerous drivers to remain on the roads.