No way to get drunks off the road

September 12, 1997|By Rick Berman

WASHINGTON -- Hardly had the news surfaced that Princess Diana's driver, Henri Paul, was legally drunk than three members of Congress announced plans to redefine drunk driving. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., would require all states to adopt an arrest threshold of .08 percent blood-alcohol concentration or forfeit their federal highway grants.

That is the level reached by a 120-pound woman drinking two glasses of wine over two hours. No scientific evidence exists that such a standard would save lives. It would just make police chase social drinkers.

Perhaps if the honorable lawmakers weren't intoxicated by their own righteousness, they would see that the Diana horror proves the opposite of their case. Henri Paul was no borderline tippler. He was a stone-drunk driver, precisely the sort of menace who doesn't give a happy hoorah what the law says. France's standard is .06, but Mr. Paul's blood-alcohol concentration was reported at .175 -- nearly three times the legal limit. Problem drinkers aren't daunted by stricter drinking-and-driving laws.

Many European countries have lower alcohol limits than the United States' -- Sweden's is .02 percent -- but none of them has a lower highway-death rate than ours.

At one time, social drinkers sometimes did overindulge and then drive. But 20 years of public education have largely eliminated that peril. Few now think it's funny to get drunk at a party, much less to drive home afterward. Even Candy Lightner, the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, has written that .08 legislation ''ignores the real core of the problem. If we really want to save lives, let's go after the most dangerous drivers on the road.''

The DeWine approach would not do that. It probably would produce more arrests, temporarily creating the illusion that dangerous drivers were being scoured from the highways. But that would mask the problem, not cure it. The restaurant industry proposes a more rewarding strategy -- tougher penalties for the truly out-of-control drunk.

The speeding analogy

Consider speeding laws. Drivers ticketed for being a few miles over the speed limit pay a relatively light fine. But leadfoots who drive 20, 30, or more mph faster than the limit face progressively steeper penalties. They may go to jail or, especially if repeat offenders, have their licenses yanked.

This principle rarely governs drinking and driving. In California, for example, the 120-pound woman who just reaches .08 (that state's limit) is subjected to the same punishment as though she had single-handedly drained a Napa Valley wine cellar.

Under our plan, a first offender with a blood-alcohol concentration of .10 would pay a fine and drive for several months on a restricted license (commuting only). A repeater with a reading over .20 would do 10 to 30 days in jail and lose all driving privileges for 30 months. And woe unto him caught behind a wheel while under suspension.

Such an approach can curb alcoholics and other hard-core drinkers. Simply lowering the legal standard will only create a nuisance for safety-minded social drinkers. Now, which approach will actually make the roads safer?

Rick Berman is general counsel of the American Beverage Institute.

Pub Date: 9/12/97

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