How far should the crackdown on drunk driving go? The Los Angeles Times asks that question, as highway deaths link to drunk driving grow despite requirements that states toughen their laws to be eligible for federal highway aid. Congress is poised to reauthorize transportation funding covering the next six years. The Times says a “major restructuring” of drunk-driving policy is likely.
Several states this week, facing the threat of losing federal highway funding, completed significant reform of their laws. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell signed legislation lowering the legal blood-alcohol level in his state, following similar action in Louisiana and other places. All but five states have set a maximum alcohol level of 0.08%, down from 0.10% or 0.15% in years past. Colorado, Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey and West Virginia continue to permit driving at a 0.10% blood-alcohol level. There were 16,572 deaths blamed on drunk driving in 1999, and 7,419 last year.
Some safety advocates say more emphasis should be on catching highly intoxicated drivers. Others want to emphasize that all drinking and driving can impair safety. The Century Council, a distillers-sponsored group, will issue a report today that says highly intoxicated drivers with blood-alcohol levels over 0.15% cause most alcohol-related fatal accidents.
The group wants states to raise criminal penalties for repeat offenders, impose harsher penalties for drivers caught with higher alcohol levels and require mandatory testing when police suspect a driver is impaired. Only 28 states impose tougher penalties for drivers who test significantly above the 0.08% standard.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving has said it is seeking to establish a $1-billion annual fund dedicated to combating alcohol-related highway fatalities, up from $123 million in 2001. The group also wants expanded enforcement, improved data collection and national standards that would outlaw open containers in vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is running a public awareness program under the slogan “You Drink, You Drive, You Lose” – suggesting that drivers should avoid all alcohol.