March 7, 1997 in Nation/World

States May Be Forced To Toughen Dui Laws Bill In Congress Would Lower Limit, Stiffen Penalties

Matthew L. Wald New York Times
 

With an increase in deaths from drunken driving and the repeated defeat of stricter measures in many state legislatures, advocates of such tougher laws opened a drive Thursday for a strict national definition of intoxication, and for minimum sentencing rules for state judges to use in drunken-driving cases.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others want the blood-alcohol concentration that constitutes proof of drunkenness set by Congress at 0.08 percent, as it already is in 13 states.

Thirty-five states, including Washington and Idaho, set the limit at 0.10 percent. The Idaho Senate last month passed a bill to lower the limit to 0.08 percent. That bill is waiting House action.

Two states, Massachusetts and South Carolina, do not define drunkenness by blood-alcohol level.

Advocates of the stricter standard said the change would save at least 500 lives a year. The 0.08-percent standard would mean that a 170-pound man with an empty stomach, who now can have five drinks in an hour without necessarily being drunk, could have only four.

Either 0.08 percent or 0.10 percent is a high level of consumption for anyone who plans to drive, said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who introduced a bill in the House on Thursday to set the standard. “By most definitions, this just isn’t social drinking,” she said.

But the bar, hotel and restaurant industries, along with distillers and brewers, oppose making the rules stricter and have successfully fought the imposition of the 0.08-percent standard in state capitols.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who introduced an identical bill in the Senate, said of the opponents, “It’s not much different from the tobacco industry fighting to seduce and addict 3,000 kids a day to smoking.”

Lautenberg wrote the 1984 law that required states to raise the drinking age to 21 or face loss of highway funds. The law redefining intoxication would use the same mechanism.

Lowey and Lautenberg each introduced another bill that would require a six-month license suspension for a first drunken driving offense, a one-year suspension for a second offense, and a permanent suspension for a third offense.

John C. Doyle, a spokesman for the American Beverage Institute, said that only 7 percent of alcoholrelated traffic fatalities involve drivers who test at 0.08 percent or .09 percent. People who want to reduce drunken driving deaths, he said, should be concentrating on drivers with blood-alcohol levels far in excess of 0.10 percent.

But advocates disagreed. Speaking at a news conference Thursday, Randy Frazier of Westminster, Md., said his 9-year-old daughter, waiting for the school bus in the family’s driveway, was killed by a driver whose blood-alcohol level was 0.08 percent. Because the driver was not intoxicated under Maryland law, she avoided conviction for automobile manslaughter, he said, and was convicted on a lesser charge.

Doyle said his group agreed that “sanctions should be more fierce” for people convicted of drunken driving, but argued that lowering the blood-alcohol limits would turn social drinkers into outlaws. He said that the blood-alcohol level of a 120-pound woman drinking two 6-ounce glasses of wine in two hours would reach 0.08 percent, a contention that proponents of stricter rules denied.

Doyle said the real goal of the mothers’ group and others was to prevent anyone from drinking anything and then driving.

Lowey said she is not against drinking. “Drink yourself sick, if you want. Just stay off the road.”

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