WASHINGTON -- Congress, joining forces with President Clinton, is adopting a tough national standard for drunken driving that proponents say should reduce the 15,000-plus annual highway fatalities linked to alcohol.
Ending a three-year legislative struggle, House and Senate negotiators have agreed to require states to implement a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content standard as the legal level for drunken driving by 2004. States that fail to impose that standard would begin losing millions of dollars a year in federal highway funds.
The House may vote on the measure, part of a transportation spending bill, as early as Wednesday, and the Senate is expected to quickly follow suit, sending the legislation to the president for his signature.
Clinton said the 0.08 standard was a "common-sense nationwide limit" that will save an estimated 500 lives a year and prevent thousands of injuries.
"This is a tremendous win not only for those who have lost loved ones to drunk drivers, but for those whose families will remain safe because more drunk drivers will be off the road," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., a chief sponsor of the legislation.
The restaurant and beverage industries, which have lobbied hard to defeat the 0.08 standard, said the majority of drinking-related fatalities involve people with far higher blood alcohol concentrations and the legislation does not address the real problem: hard-core and repeat drinking offenders.
In 1998, 15,935 traffic deaths were attributed to drunken driving, or 38.4 percent of the 41,471 deaths overall. Both numbers were down slightly from the year before.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving cites studies showing that a driver with 0.08 blood alcohol content is 11 times more likely to be involved in a fatal collision than a sober driver.
"There's no single solution to drunk driving," said MADD President Millie Webb, who lost a nephew and a daughter and who, with her husband and unborn baby, was severely injured in a crash with a driver with 0.08 percent content. But 0.08 laws "are among the most important measures proven to save lives on our roadways."
Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia have 0.08 laws, and in Massachusetts evidence of a level of 0.08 is considered evidence but not proof of drunkenness. Thirty-one states define drunken driving as 0.10 percent blood alcohol content.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., a leader on the issue in the House with Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said 0.08 has been proven to save lives. Illinois, she said, has seen a 13.7 percent decline in fatal crashes involving drunken driving since it adopted 0.08 in 1997.
But John Doyle, spokesman for the American Beverage Institute, said alcohol-related fatalities were up 8 percent last year in Virginia, which has a 0.08 standard, but down 12 percent in neighboring Maryland, which does not.
Doyle's group says the 0.08 standard would mean that a 120-pound woman who drinks two 6-ounce glasses of wine over a two-hour period could face arrest and mandatory jail or loss of her license.
But MADD, also citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studies, says a 170-pound man would have to have four drinks in an hour on an empty stomach, or a 137-pound woman three drinks in an hour, to reach 0.08.
Under the final compromise, states that don't implement the 0.08 standard by 2004 would lose 2 percent of their highway money, with the penalty increasing to 8 percent by 2007. States that adopt the standard by 2007 would be reimbursed for any lost money.
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