April 9, 1998
Congress is trying to require states to implement a new drunk driving law that lowers the legal blood alcohol level from .10 to .08. Many state advocates and critics are arguing that it is not Congress's place to pass a law but rather the state's. The NewsHour has the report.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting has the drunk driving story.
OFFICER: We're going to count out loud--
LEE HOCHBERG: The standard for what is considered drunk driving varies from state to state. In most, driving with a blood alcohol level of .10 percent is illegal. That's about five beers an hour for a 170-pound man. The U.S. Senate recently voted to require states to lower that level to .08 percent. That's one beer less.
OFFICER: I want you to follow my finger with your eyes.
LEE HOCHBERG: Troopers in Oregon have enforced a .08 percent limit since 1983. They say the law--together with license suspensions for drunk driving--has slashed the number of alcohol-related fatalities in the state by 10 percent.
OFFICER: People are just more aware. They're more aware of the dangers. They're more aware of the consequences as a result of being arrested and people would prefer not to put themselves in that situation.
LEE HOCHBERG: Fatalities are also down in other states that have merged .08 laws with tougher enforcement. In California, the number of fatalities has fallen 50 percent since the state passed its .08 law in 1990.
SPOKESPERSON: We've got one subject unconscious, not breathing, pinned in the vehicle, which is filling with water. It's upside down in a ditch.
LEE HOCHBERG: But police like .08, critics call it "feel good" legislation that doesn't deal with the real drunk driving problem. That problem, they say, is drivers with higher blood alcohol levels, like .14 and above. Accident data suggests those drivers are involved in 2/3 of fatal crashes. The federal government cautions against that conclusion, as there's no uniformity of data collection.
LT. GREGG HASTINGS, Oregon State Police: The vehicle left the roadway, turned over onto its top. And it appears right now as though he's deceased. There's possibly alcohol involvement. There is no container of alcohol near the scene.
LEE HOCHBERG: The National Restaurant Association has lobbied vigorously against a national .08 standard, arguing, instead, for tougher enforcement against the very drunk. Diane Sims runs Lombardi's Cucina Restaurant in Seattle.
DIANE SYMMS, Restaurant Manager: Why don't they get those people off the road? Why haven't they been effective at getting those people off the road? Those are the people that are killing.
LEE HOCHBERG: Restauranteurs, who could become liable if they serve customers with blood alcohol levels of .08, say they can't always tell if a customer's at that level.
DIANE SYMMS: They don't look drunk, they don't act drunk, they don't slur their words, they don't have red eyes.
LEE HOCHBERG: Despite such opposition, the Washington State legislature passed its own .08 law recently. The head of the Senate Law & Justice Committee accused the restaurant industry of simply being concerned about its profits.
STATE SEN. PAM ROACH, (R) Washington: The Restaurant Association with the liquor industry is protecting its own. They want to make sure that there is absolutely no dip in their income.
LEE HOCHBERG: State Sen. Pam Roach says even if the new law doesn't stop heavy drinkers, it could eliminate 10 percent of the state's 400 alcohol fatalities per year, as it has helped do in neighboring Oregon.
STATE SEN. PAM ROACH: Does 40 lives a year sound like a lot to you? We have 39 counties in Washington State. Does one life per each county in the State of Washington per year sound like it's a value to you?
LEE HOCHBERG: Still, some local government leaders continue to argue the law is a bad idea. Thurston County Commissioner Diane Oberquell argues it will put more pressure on already overloaded jails.
DIANE OBERQUELL, Thurston County Commissioner: As you can see, we are terribly crowded now. If .08 goes through, we will have more people sleeping on the floor. As a matter of fact, we'll probably have to stack them on top of each other.
LEE HOCHBERG: She adds .08 will drive up costs for prosecutors and court time. The state says it will reimburse local jurisdictions for such costs and sentence as many drunk drivers as possible to home detention to alleviate pressure on jails. Congress is still putting together its .08 package. It's hearing from state's rights advocates, who argue it's not the federal government's job to impose the standard. Even some backers of .08 make that case.
STATE SEN. PAM ROACH: So, Congress, I would say, leave us alone. We're doing the work here. We don't need a mandate. We don't need you to threaten. Let us be responsive to our own constituents, which is exactly what we're doing here in Washington.
LEE HOCHBERG: In the U.S. House of Representatives last week a proposal that would have required states to implement the .08 standard was blocked from coming to the floor for a vote. President Clinton urged members of the Senate and House Conference Committee to revisit the issue this spring when they take up a transportation funding bill.