In a move pitting personal freedom and states’ rights against public safety and national rules, President Clinton called Tuesday for Congress to mandate a stricter blood-alcohol standard for drunken driving than 35 states now enforce.
The Senate is to vote as early as today on a measure that would withhold billions of federal highway dollars from states that refuse to adopt the .08 percent blood-alcohol content standard. Currently, 35 states and the District of Columbia observe a .10 percent standard.
The lower level would reduce the number of drinks a 170-pound man could consume in one hour on an empty stomach from five to four before he is presumed drunk by police, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. A 135-pound woman could consume three drinks.
But opponents said separate NHTSA data show that a 120-pound woman might reach the .08 standard after only two glasses of wine in two hours.
“According to this law, she’s going to jail,” said John Doyle, spokesman for the American Beverage Institute, a trade association of some 5,000 restaurants, including TGI Friday’s, Chili’s, and Bennigan’s, that is leading opposition to the bill. Similarly, Doyle said, a 160-pound man would reach .08 after three drinks in two hours. “Now you’re talking about our patrons. That’s why we’re involved.”
He contends that the new law would not reach problem drinkers, but would penalize law-abiding social drinkers
NHTSA spokeswoman Kathryn Henry disputed Doyle, saying her agency’s information does not show that so few drinks would produce a blood-alcohol content of .08. “The point is that once you reach .08 percent, you are impaired. Your critical driving skills are degraded,” Henry said.
Clinton spotlighted the issue with an event in the elegant East Room of the White House that featured Brenda Frazier, whose daughter Ashley, 9, was killed by a drunken driver with an alcohol level of .08 on Dec. 22, 1995.
In a quavering voice, Frazier recalled how she watched in horror when Ashley was hit as she waited for her school bus at the end of her driveway in Hempstead, Md. “Never will I forget the sound of impact,” Frazier said. “It will haunt my mind forever.”
After she spoke, Clinton somberly observed that all parents know the fear “that something might happen” to their child. Frazier’s story, he said, “should be all the reminder that any member of Congress needs” to toughen the drunken-driving standard. The legislation “will send a strong message that our nation will not tolerate irresponsible acts that endanger our children and our nation,” Clinton said.
The president also signed an executive order requiring enforcement of the .08 standard on all federal property, including national parks and military bases.
Doyle, of the restaurant lobby, conceded that the Frazier family suffered a horrible tragedy. But, observing that the driver who killed Ashley was a 20-year-old, under-age drinker with an alcohol reading of .08 at 8 a.m., Doyle argued, “This is not a social drinker.”
The average blood-alcohol content for drunken drivers in fatal accidents is .17 percent, more than twice the proposed new standard, Doyle said. The law should target for severe punishment heavy drinkers who drive, not social drinkers, he argued.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., prime sponsor of the measure, rejected such arguments at the White House event. “The alcohol lobby is trying to bottle up this bill. We’re not targeting social drinkers. We are targeting drunk drivers. … We are not asking people not to drink. We are asking them not to drive if they are drunk.”
In 1996, 41,097 people died in motor vehicle accidents, and 41 percent - or 17,126- were alcoholrelated. Almost 4,000 of those deaths, or 9 percent, involved drivers whose BAC was under .10 percent, according to Lautenberg’s office.
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that a nationwide level of .08 percent would save up to 600 lives a year.
Doyle said the author of that study has made a career of crusading against the dangers of alcohol and is a board member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, one of several groups pushing the legislation. Others include the American Medical Association, the American Automobile Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Virginia toughened its standard to .08 from .10 in 1994 and alcohol-related traffic accidents fell from 12,854 in 1993 to 11,220 in 1996, according to Ed Flynn, police chief of Arlington County, a Washington suburb, who spoke at the White House event. Alcohol-related fatalities and arrests for drunken driving also have fallen in Virginia since 1994, said Flynn, who credits the .08 standard with spurring greater “self-enforcement” by citizens.
Besides Virginia, other states enforcing a standard of .08 are Utah, Oregon, Maine, California, Vermont, Kansas, North Carolina, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Florida, Hawaii, Alabama, Idaho and Illinois.
“States have historically made these kinds of decisions,” said Jeff Becker, a spokesman for the Beer Institute, a trade group for brewers based here. “Our view is there is no need for a federal role here. This is just further intrusion into states’ rights.”
That argument might play in the Republican-majority House, where Speaker Newt Gingrich made repeal of federal mandates to states one of the cornerstones of his Contract with America in 1994.
Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House transportation committee, opposes the measure on those grounds. “The best way to encourage states to curb drunk driving is by providing incentives, not threats,” Shuster said.
But the Senate is expected to pass Lautenberg’s measure easily.
“All we’re trying to do is nationalize the levels of alcohol that would be appropriate when driving. It’s a national issue. It ought to be treated that way in this bill. I think it will pass,” said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.