Lower threshold for drunken driving National mandate: Funding stick could prod states to stiffen blood-alcohol laws to define intoxicated driving as more than 3 or 4 drinks.

October 25, 1997

YOU'RE DRIVING on the beltway. The motorist in the next lane consumed four beers during the past hour. To paraphrase Clint Eastwood, do you feel lucky?

Amazingly, that tipsy driver may be within his legal rights in Maryland and 34 other states where a blood-alcohol concentration of .10 is the minimum to be considered drunk. In recent years, Virginia and 14 other states have stiffened their definition of intoxicated driving to .08. That's still more than four drinks for a 170-pound man on an empty stomach, more than three for a 135-pound woman.

Yet the state-by-state movement to .08 has stalled, often because lobbyists for liquor interests have successfully smothered it in the various legislatures. The liquor industry is foolish, because automobile deaths rooted in alcohol will only heap scorn on the business, but it is reflexively battling .08 laws nonetheless.

President Clinton and several lawmakers believe it is time to confront drunken driving with a national thrust, as the government is doing now to battle another killer, tobacco.

Under Senate Bill 412, authored by Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, and Michael DeWine, an Ohio Republican, transportation funds would be withheld from states without a .08 standard.

Washington took a similar stand on teen drinking and driving in 1984 -- with dramatic effect. Traffic deaths involving teen-agers and alcohol dropped nearly 60 percent between 1982, prior to the federal law, and 1996. That was twice the drop in alcohol-related traffic fatalities for the population at large.

There was also a 25 percent drop in surveys of teens who described themselves as heavy drinkers, suggesting that the force of law nudges people to drink more responsibly. That's a critical and little recognized benefit of a .08 law. In fact, states that switched to .08 recorded an 18 percent decline in fatal crashes involving drivers with blood-alcohol rates of .15.

Medical researchers estimate 600 lives would be saved a year with a .08 law. That has been the experience in other nations with stricter standards than ours, including wine-rich France and Japan, which has fewer drunken driving deaths than Maryland alone (475 vs. 671). Even in the U.S., though, the public isn't as willing to wink at tipsy drivers as it was years ago, after hearing of or being hurt by the deaths of individuals, of families, even a princess.

Four drinks in one state make you no less drunk than four drinks in another. The abundant evidence justifies a national response.

Pub Date: 10/25/97

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