Power-drunk feds stepped over the line

January 28, 2003|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - When a boss gives an employee a task, it's best for the employee to accept it. When the federal government tells the states to do something, it's prudent for the states to submit.

In either case, the consequences of refusal are generally too painful to bear. But lately, something unusual has occurred: Washington has demanded action from state legislatures, and many of them have invited Washington to go pound sand.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton and Congress decided that drunken driving required a national remedy. So they enacted a law instructing states to reduce the blood-alcohol level that defines drunken driving from the 0.10 percent that was common down to 0.08. Any state that declined would lose millions of dollars in federal highway funding, starting in 2004.

Most state legislators would rather be slathered in honey and staked to an anthill than surrender a large pot of free money, so they usually respond to such mandates by capitulating. That's what most states did this time. The surprise is that 17 states, including Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, have emulated the title character of Herman Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener, who had the same answer for every request: "I would prefer not to." They've kept their drunken-driving standard at 0.10 percent, despite the impending loss of cash.

Part of the disagreement is about whether reducing the level will actually improve highway safety. Opponents say advocates are puritanical killjoys who want to stamp out harmless social drinking. Some state legislators say the cost of prosecuting and punishing offenders under the lower standard would exceed any possible benefit.

"I don't think there would be one person saved by a 0.08 law," Minnesota state Rep. Tom Rukavina recently told The Los Angeles Times. "All we would have is more arrests."

The case for banishing drivers with a 0.08 blood-alcohol concentration (BAC), however, is pretty strong. A man weighing 170 pounds would have to down five beers within two hours to exceed that level; a 120-pound woman would need three. Would you get in a car with a driver who's just consumed the lion's share of a six-pack?

Still, the effectiveness of tighter laws is not entirely clear. A 1999 report by Congress' General Accounting Office found no definitive evidence that the 0.08 standard, by itself, cuts down on alcohol-related crashes. At the same time, the GAO said "there are strong indications that 0.08 BAC laws in combination with other drunken driving laws (particularly license revocation laws), sustained public education and information efforts, and vigorous and consistent enforcement can save lives."

But the fact that a stricter drunken-driving standard may make the roads safer doesn't mean the federal government should impose it by grabbing states by their highway funds and squeezing hard. If any government duty belongs primarily to state and local officials, it's traffic safety.

They're the ones charged with enforcing traffic laws and living - or dying - with the consequences. Governors and state legislators are capable of weighing the evidence, listening to their constituents and deciding whether the potential benefits of the 0.08 standard are worth the trouble and cost.

By contrast, it made perfect sense for the federal government to mandate a national drinking age of 21. If the drinking age is 21 in one state and 18 just across the state line, some 18-year-olds will drive from the first state to the second, get drunk, and kill themselves or others driving home.

If any state will suffer a higher death rate because of Wisconsin's more permissive 0.10 standard, it's Wisconsin. But that's a risk its citizens will bear, and their elected representatives should be free to address it without fear of federal bullies.

Preserving the legitimate powers of states is not exactly a fashionable cause these days. But why can't they even be allowed to handle matters that have traditionally been their responsibility, and whose effects are confined within their borders? Maybe it's because our leaders in Washington are intoxicated with power.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.

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