Clinton Backs Drunken-driver Bill Lautenberg's Measure Would Require States To Lower The Blood-alcohol Threshold To .08.

Posted: March 04, 1998

WASHINGTON — As relatives of individuals killed in drunken-driving accidents looked on, President Clinton yesterday endorsed legislation sponsored by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D., N.J.) that would require most states to tighten drunken-driving laws or risk losing federal highway funds.

The President said the bill would go a long way toward reducing alcohol-related highway fatalities.

It would require 35 states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, to lower the legal threshold for drunken driving from .10 blood-alcohol content to .08. States that fail to enact the tougher standard would lose 5 percent of their federal highway funding the first year, with increased penalties in subsequent years.

``If Congress passes it, I will sign it,'' Clinton said during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. ``To people who disregard the lethal threat they pose when they drink and drive, lowering the legal limit will send a strong message that our nation will not tolerate irresponsible acts that endanger our children and our nation.''

Under the current standard, a 170-pound man would have to drink five 5-ounce glasses of wine or five 12-ounce bottles of beer to go over the limit. Under the proposed standard, a 170-pound man would have to have four drinks in the same period, the bill's proponents said.

Lobbyists for restaurants and the liquor industry have been trying to defeat the measure, arguing that it would do nothing to reduce the number of drunken-driving deaths.

John Doyle, a spokesman for the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association, said most drunken-driving deaths occur in cases in which people drink far more than the current limits. Simply lowering the threshold at which a person could be charged with drunken driving would do little to get these drivers off the road, he said.

``Responsible social drinkers are going to go to jail, they are going to lose their licenses, and their insurance rates are going to double and triple [if the legislation is passed],'' Doyle said. ``This is political gamesmanship.''

The White House ceremony was attended by Brenda Frazier, a Maryland woman whose 9-year-old daughter, Ashley, was hit by a car and killed in front of their house on Dec. 22, 1995. The driver of the car had a blood-alcohol level of .08.

In a quavering voice, Frazier recalled how she watched in horror when Ashley was hit as she waited for a school bus at the end of her driveway in Hampstead, Md. ``Never will I forget the sound of impact,'' Frazier said. ``It will haunt my mind forever.''

Mothers Against Drunk Driving frequently cites the incident in making a case for tougher standards.

Clinton timed the endorsement to coincide with efforts by Lautenberg to push for support in the Senate. Lautenberg yesterday offered the proposal as an amendment to a $171 billion highway funding bill, and the full Senate is expected to pass the measure sometime today.

The proposal faces an uncertain future in the House.

Proponents cite a 1996 Boston University study that concluded states that had enacted a lower drunken-driving threshold experienced a 16 percent reduction in alcohol-related fatalities.

``The alcohol lobby will try to bottle up this bill with lies,'' said Lautenberg, who sponsored legislation signed in 1984 setting 21 as the national drinking age. ``They say we are trying to target social drinkers. They are wrong. Nothing in this bill asks people to stop drinking. It tells drunks to stop driving.''

The White House said the stricter definition would save up to 600 lives a year. In 1996, 17,126 people died in alcohol-related car accidents, the White House said, out of a total 41,907 highway fatalities.

States enforcing a standard of .08 are Utah, Oregon, Maine, California, Vermont, Kansas, North Carolina, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Florida, Hawaii, Alabama, Idaho, Illinois and Virginia.

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