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Trouble Brewing Supporters Say New Dui Law Will Save Lives; Others Say It Will Penalize Even Light Drinkers

Jason Milbrandt knows Tuesday may be his final “old-fashioned” St. Patrick’s Day.

The 29-year-old Spokane Valley truck driver says he usually spends that evening with friends at a bar, having a few beers and a good time.

But Milbrandt knows Washington’s new drunken-driving law - expected to be signed soon by Gov. Gary Locke - is a shot across the bar at people like him. It lowers the legal limit to a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent.

“I don’t ever get blasted. I like a couple of drinks if I’m not going very far later,” said Milbrandt, who drives for a long-distance freight company.

The new standard, which could go into effect Jan. 1, will replace the limit of 0.10 percent, adopted in 1994.

Milbrandt said fear of getting busted will prompt him to impose a one-beer limit next year.

“I can’t afford to get smacked with the penalties they’re going to have next time around,” he said.

Washington will be the 16th state to drop the legal limit to 0.08 percent in the past 15 years. Oregon was the first; Idaho followed suit last year.

More states are sure to follow as Congress pushes for the 0.08 standard nationally. States that don’t comply risk losing federal highway dollars.

“The crucial value of the 0.08 law is making the ordinary citizen - who doesn’t habitually drive after drinking - think more about their behavior,” said John Moffat, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

But does the lower limit make highways and streets safer?

Those supporting the lower standard argue that such laws - combined with get-tough measures such as quick suspension of licenses - reduce traffic accidents and fatalities. If every state adopted the lower limit, they say, 500 to 600 lives a year - 35 to 40 in Washington - would be saved.

It’s difficult to say how much a person would have to drink to reach a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent because beverages and people vary. Blood-alcohol levels vary depending on how much a person weighs or what he or she ate for dinner.

Critics say the lower limit penalizes occasional drinkers and doesn’t address the bigger need to crack down on repeat drunken drivers.

“The real problem is with people whose blood-alcohol ends up around 0.16 or higher,” said John Doyle, a spokesman for the American Beverage Institute.

That group and others representing taverns and restaurants say dropping the limit to 0.08 exposes people who have a couple of glasses of wine during dinner to jail time and a criminal record.

“This law is like saying we have too many interstate accidents at high speeds, so let’s reduce the speed limit to 45 miles per hour,” Doyle said.

But those pushing for widespread adoption of the lower standard say most people with a blood-alcohol level of as low as 0.04 percent tend to have problems with perception and to be confused easily.

“I believe drivers at 0.08 are just as bad as those who’ve consumed much more alcohol,” said Idaho State Police Cpl. Fred Rice.

The 0.08 driver thinks he fine but tends to make bad driving decisions, “while someone at 0.10 or 0.12 will drive along at 30 miles per hour, knowing he’s got a problem,” Rice said.

Advocates and opponents alike turn to a maze of statistics and studies to argue their positions.

Since Idaho adopted its 0.08 law last July, drunken-driving arrests statewide have increased 10 percent, according to the state police.

But that has nothing to do with the 0.08 law, according to Capt. Willis Brownlee, head of the ISP’s North Idaho district.

“The main reason is we’ve made it a bigger emphasis to crack down on drunken driving,” Brownlee said. “We have our officers just working longer and harder on this problem.”

Studies show that states that have adopted the lower limit have fewer alcohol-related accidents and fatalities in three to five years. But states with the 0.10 percent limit have seen similar declines over the same period, according to the National Traffic Safety Commission.

Washington’s results may not be evident for several years. Law enforcement officials aren’t predicting a big increase in drunken-driving arrests and prosecutions under the proposed tougher standard.

“Our troopers already arrest and cite people who have blood-alcohol levels below 0.10,” said Sgt. Chris Powell, a Washington State Patrol spokesman in Spokane.

In 1996, police officers and troopers in Washington arrested about 2,400 people who tested at 0.08 and 0.09.

Drivers don’t have to test at 0.10 or higher to be found guilty of drunken driving now. What the law requires is to establish that the driver was impaired by alcohol and was not able to control his or her vehicle.

Terry Best, co-owner of O’Doherty’s Irish Grille, predicts he’ll lose business when the new law kicks in.

His after-work clientele consists mostly of downtown workers who drop in for two or three beers, spend an hour to 90 minutes, eat some food, then go home.

“That will change,” Best said. “For most of my customers, two or three beers puts them over the (0.08) limit.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo 2 Graphics: 1. Alcohol and accidents in Spokane 2. Lowering the limit