The U.S. Senate’s version of the giant highway bill now before Congress would push the states to adopt stiff penalties for three categories of drunken drivers responsible for much of the death toll on the roadways: repeat offenders, those with very high blood-alcohol levels, and those whose licenses were suspended for drunken driving but kept driving anyway. The New York Times reports the Senate action has set off vigorous lobbying on the House side, which has rejected similar language in the past. The bill is in a conference committee, where a variety of issues, including the overall spending level, are in negotiation.
But the House has generally opposed the mechanism specified by the Senate: tying highway financing to changes in state law. That has been used to force an increase in the drinking age, to 21 from 18, and to compel states to adopt a uniform standard for intoxication, at 0.08 percent blood alcohol content for people of drinking age, and at any detectible level for people below drinking age. Those measures and a change in attitude toward drinking and driving have cut the death toll, but little progress has been made in the last few years. “We can’t have the status quo of 17,000 people dying year after year after year,” said Wendy J. Hamilton, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “Since 1995 the numbers have not really moved.”