How drunk is too drunk to drive? .08 bill: Law should recognize that three or four drinks in an hour impair road ability.

January 20, 1998

IT COULD BE ME. That's what lawmakers said for years, privately at least, in rejecting measures to stiffen drunken driving laws. Their point was that they and others could picture themselves driving home after one drink too many. They were reluctant to impose harsh penalties for such behavior.

The hypothetical "it could be me" is still driving the debate, only it seems to be coming increasingly -- correctly -- from the victims' perspective. Lawmakers and voters are attuned to the carnage, from news photos of the Princess Diana accident to tragedies closer to home.

That subliminal shift is why highway safety advocates are hopeful about a General Assembly bill to lower the minimum blood-alcohol level from .10 to .08 for being considered intoxicated while driving. State police, transportation officials and shock-trauma physicians support the change. President Clinton backs federal legislation to tie highway funding to a .08 law.

A 170-pound male would need four drinks in an hour, even more with a little food in his stomach, to reach that level. A 137-pound female would need about three drinks. Even the brewer Anheuser-Busch, in its handouts encouraging more designated drivers -- a laudible program -- cites .08 as "definite impairment."

Maryland beverage and restaurant industry representatives oppose the change, reasoning that alcohol-related highways deaths are already on the decline. But that's due to pressure begun a decade ago by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, not an argument against a tougher law. Alcohol is involved in nearly half of the nation's 40,000 annual traffic fatalities.

Foes of .08 want tougher enforcement of existing laws against more seriously impaired drivers, who present far more danger. But a stronger drunken driving law will convince more people to cease their drinking before they pose that threat. We urge Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George's, and Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, not to bottle up this effort in their committees. This legislation is not about stopping people from drinking. It's about stopping people from driving while impaired. And .08 is an indisputable measure of that.

Pub Date: 1/20/98

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