Senate Backs .08 Limit On Blood Alcohol

Posted: March 05, 1998

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted yesterday to set a national drunken-driving standard of .08 percent of blood alcohol, amid complaints that the new level would infringe on the right of states to enforce their own limits.

Although 15 states already have lowered the legal limit to .08, the 35 other states still abide by a .10 percent standard in determining whether a person is, by definition, driving while intoxicated.

President Clinton, who supported the legislation, thanked the Senate for the vote and urged its adoption in the House.

``I hope that's an indication that these kind of public safety issues will be high on the agenda of Congress,'' he said.

A similar proposal has drawn substantial support in the House, where 64 members have signed on. But the prospect for passage there is clouded by some Republican concerns that it tramples on the right of states to set their own blood-alcohol limits.

The amendment, which passed the Senate on a 62-32 vote, requires that the Federal Highway Administration withhold construction funds from states that refuse to adopt the federal drunken-driving standard.

Under the proposal, any state that failed to enforce the .08 percent limit by Oct. 1, 2001, would lose 5 percent of its allotment from the new highway construction legislation. The penalty would rise to 10 percent in subsequent years.

The vote came on an amendment by Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg (D., N.J.) and Michael DeWine (R., Ohio) to a six-year highway bill that will provide $171 billion to the states for road construction and repair.

``Happy hour for the [beverage] industry is over,'' Lautenberg said after the vote. ``This is the last call. We hope that when someone says, `One more for the road,' the road will lead straight to jail.''

Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) was the only area senator to vote against the proposal. He said he supported efforts by individual states to tighten drunken-driving laws but opposed what he said was an unconstitutional intrusion by the federal government into the business of the states.

``I am not going to support blackmail,'' Santorum said. ``If I were a state legislator I would vote for it, and I would encourage the governor and the legislature of Pennsylvania to [support] it. I know that is not the populist thing to say. But I am not going to play state legislator here in Washington.''

The 15 states that now have the stricter standard are: Utah, Oregon, Maine, California, Vermont, Kansas, North Carolina, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Florida, Virginia, Hawaii, Alabama, Idaho and Illinois.

`ADVERSELY AFFECTED' Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a report maintaining that virtually all drivers, regardless of their skill, are ``significantly impaired'' at the .08 level. ``Basic driving skills such as braking, steering and speed control, as well as judgment, reaction time and focused attention are adversely affected,'' the report said.

The liquor and restaurant lobbies opposed the amendment, contending that the lower level will make drunken drivers out of social drinkers who are in control of their faculties. They also argued that the effort to set a lower blood-alcohol limit would divert law enforcers from cracking down on chronic alcohol abusers who are responsible for most serious alcohol-related accidents.

``We need new strategies that target alcohol abusers,'' said John Doyle of the American Beverage Institute, a trade association here for some 5,000 restaurants where alcohol is served.

He said there were ``irrefutable data to prove that today's drunk-driving problem is caused by alcohol abusers. Stiff fines and license suspension should accompany intensive therapy for alcoholism. And those who continue to [abuse alcohol and] drive should be incapacitated like any public menace, with substantial prison terms.''

AIR-QUALITY RULES Later in the day, the President racked up a separate victory on the highway bill when a group of senators agreed to abandon its efforts to repeal new air-quality rules.

Instead, an amendment to the highway bill now would put into law the administration's goals for tougher ozone and dust standards.

A jubilant Carol M. Browner, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, lauded the Senate's action and said: ``As a result of today's agreement, the President's action to strengthen public-health air-quality standards will remain intact. His plan for delivering cleaner air to the public will move forward.''

The deal also guarantees that the EPA, which proposed the rules last year, will pick up all the costs incurred by states in monitoring air for the pollutants that medical authorities say cause lung and pulmonary disorders.

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