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Death, Destruction Are Terrible Chasers

Whether your celebrations sparkle with cubic zirconia or diamonds, flow with Budweiser or Dom Perignon, one fact of holiday life crosses all lines of class and income.

Drinking and driving do not make a festive combination.

After this season’s parties have faded, or at least moved on to Olympia, Washington legislators will have a chance to authorize the yanking of more drunken drivers from the highways and so save lives. They’ll be voting on legislative proposals to lower the state’s legal driving age from .10 to .08 percent.

Consider this: Reaching .08 still requires alcohol consumption to a brain-soaking level. Experts estimate it takes four or five drinks in an hour for a 170-pound man or three drinks for a 137-pound woman to reach .08. Just think how wiped out you must be to reach the current .10 limit.

Nine-year-old Ashley Frazier was killed three days before Christmas 1995 by a drunken driver whose blood alcohol content was near .08. This Maryland girl simply was waiting for a bus ride to school.

When people drink, driving impairment starts fast. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, at levels as low as .03, a person’s tracking ability seriously declines. That’s the trick of focusing briefly on a Ford Taurus as it passes by, then quickly refocusing on the oncoming Suburban. At that level, a driver’s steering precision may also decline.

A bill before Congress would require all states to lower the legal limit to .08 by 2000 or lose federal highway funds. Proponents say the bill could save 600 lives annually, nationwide.

In Washington state, alcohol-related crashes caused 331 deaths and 1,333 serious injuries last year. In states where the blood alcohol limit has been lowered, alcohol-related deaths have dropped 12 to 18 percent. Seventeen states, including California, Oregon and Idaho, have already adopted the .08 limit.

This week, Gov. Gary Locke introduced a proposal to drop the state’s blood alcohol limit and tighten the legal loopholes for drunken drivers. It’s similar to a proposal Republican senators announced earlier this month. It also directs the Traffic Safety Commission to launch a new public awareness campaign. Certainly, driving sober is even more important than remembering to buckle seat belts or wear bicycle helmets.

Whatever else those state politicians do, it’s important they get together to pass this legislation. This is a chance to keep people alive and make it that much harder to ruin any family’s future holidays.

Next on the agenda: Making designated drivers as much a fixture of holiday celebrations as the sparkling lights and icy drinks.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Jamie Tobias Neely/For the editorial board