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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Some states resist lower alcohol limit

By Ralph Vartabedian
Los Angeles Times

A high-pressure federal effort to toughen drunken-driving laws across the United States is meeting resistance in a third of the states, where many politicians say the policy is counterproductive and misguided.

Highway safety regulators in 1998 called on states to lower the allowable blood-alcohol level for drivers to 0.08 percent, or risk losing millions of dollars in federal highway grants.

The majority of the states have conformed, but 17 — from Minnesota to South Carolina, and Nevada to Delaware — have rejected the approach and maintain laws that define drunken driving at 0.10 percent blood-alcohol. One of the 17 states — New York — is scheduled to change to 0.08 percent in 2003. Hawai'i became the 12th state with a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol limit when Gov. Ben Cayetano signed the limit into law in 1995.

Though no one defends drunken drivers or suggests abandoning the campaign against them, the states say federal officials have not shown that 0.08 percent laws save lives. Critics say the tougher laws weaken the emphasis on catching hard-core drunks who cause the most deadly crashes and saddle states with the costs of prosecuting tens of thousands of additional violators.

"I don't think there would be one person saved by a .08 law," said Tom Rukavina, a Minnesota legislator representing the state's Iron Range, a sparsely populated region west of Lake Superior. "All we would have is more arrests."

Rukavina estimates a 0.08 percent law would result in 6,000 additional criminal arrests costing the state about $60 million, outweighing the potential loss of federal highway money. Nevada legislators have voted down 0.08 percent laws repeatedly for similar reasons, said Bernie Anderson, chairman of the state Assembly Judiciary Committee.

The federal-state standoff reflects broader controversies about the nation's campaign against drunken driving.

Some safety experts express frustration that the campaign against drunken driving has become such a politically powerful force that safety issues involving roads, car standards and driver behavior are left in the shadows.

They say the dimensions of the drunken-driving problem also may be misrepresented by complex government statistics.

Federal officials reject the criticism, asserting that 0.08 percent laws save lives and that the statistics showing that 40 percent of highway deaths involve alcohol do not exaggerate the problem.

The Christmas-to-New-Year holiday period is the deadliest of the year for drunken driving, with an average of 1,000 alcohol-related deaths.

Nobody questions that the fight against drunken driving has resulted in tremendous progress during the past half-century, saving by some estimates 21,000 lives and radically changing the public mindset about alcohol.

But progress in reducing drunken-driving deaths has stalled in recent years. Between 1993 and 2001, alcohol-related driving deaths leveled out at about 17,000 a year despite many states adopting tougher laws and stepped-up enforcement.

And many state officials and some accident experts worry that other types of driver impairments may not be getting the same kind of attention.

"Theoretically, very small amounts of alcohol in your blood impairs you, but so do antihistamines and lack of sleep," said Brian O'Neill, president of the highly respected Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Advocates for safer cars and improved roads support the drunken-driving effort, but say federal officials lack the same commitment to preventing the nearly 24,700 highway deaths involving sober drivers last year. That death toll has leaped 39 percent in the past two decades.

"There are other elements to highway safety than stopping drunk drivers," said Bella Dinh-Zarr, director of traffic safety policy at the American Automobile Association. "We don't think (the campaign against drunk driving) is a silver bullet."