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U.S.: Congress Considers National Standards For Drunk Driving

By Lisa Kammerud

Washington, 3 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Congress is considering legislation to set a nationwide standard for how much alcohol consumption is legal for drivers. But the proposal has run into a roadblock in the House of Representatives.

Supporters say a stricter standard would save lives. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), a group organized by victims of drunken driving accidents, says more than 17,000 people are killed by drunk drivers in the United States each year.

In Eastern and Central Europe, drivers can be punished for having a small amount of alcohol in their blood when driving. In the United States, each state now has its own standard. More than half say a driver can have a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of up to .10 percent and still drive. Sixteen states have limits of .08 percent BAC.

BAC is the method used to determine a driver's level of intoxication. It measures the amount, in grams, of alcohol that is present in one liter of blood. Most nations have lower limits than .10 percent, although they vary.

According to the International Council of Alcohol, Drug, and Traffic Safety, Poland has a standard limit of .02 percent, and in the Czech Republic, people are not supposed to drive after drinking at all. The European Union has set .05 percent as the target limit for member countries. Experts say impairment begins at .03 percent.

BAC depends on the amount of drinks someone has had and how quickly, whether they have eaten recently, and what size a person is. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says a man weighing 77 kilograms who has four drinks in one hour would have a BAC of .08 percent. For a 62 kilogram woman it would take three drinks in an hour to reach .08 percent.

The bill under consideration in the U.S. would make .08 percent BAC the nationwide standard. The U.S. government does not have the power to mandate changes in state traffic laws, but it can threaten to give states less federal money. This bill says states who do not adopt a standard of .08 percent could lose up to 10 percent of their federal highway funding.

The bill passed the Senate early this month by nearly a two thirds majority. Supporters of the bill expected similar success in the House of Representatives. However, groups which oppose the bill became much more vocal after the Senate vote.

The liquor and restaurant industries in the United States say they oppose the bill because threats to withhold funding are "a form of blackmail against states." They do not believe this method will significantly decrease the number of deaths caused by drunk drivers.

The industries hired professional lobbyists whose job was to convince members of Congress not to vote for the bill. Political action committees have also helped business groups in their campaign. They are organizations that raise funds for interest groups.

The administration of President Bill Clinton has led the support of the .08 percent legislation, followed by victims' advocacy groups such as MADD, and organizations of medical experts and traffic safety authorities. After the Senate vote, the administration held a series of news conferences and other events to promote the bill.

Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder said at a press conference "the carnage wreaked by drunken drivers on our roadways constitutes a form of violent crime."

However, opponents say there are more effective ways to curb drunken driving than the administration's proposal, such as focusing on excessive drinkers. The alcohol and restaurant industries advocate a proposal that would offer incentives to states from the federal government to change their BAC limits to .08 percent.

Some Congressional officials said the right of states to decide standards for themselves was their reason for opposing the measure.

The coalition of groups that support punishment-oriented legislation say the alcohol and restaurant lobbies have more power at the state level. Some have also criticized Congressmen for agreeing with the industries' position because of the large campaign contributions that those businesses make to political parties and individual Congressmen.

The president-elect of the International Council on Alcohol, Drug, and Traffic Safety, Barry Sweedler, says "in our system of government in the U.S. everybody has a voice to express their views, and sometimes the voice is considered to be louder if it's accompanied by funds, for campaigns to run for political office or other purposes."

In a House of Representatives committee hearing Tuesday, committee members decided to add the proposal for incentives to a larger transportation bill instead of the tougher legislation that the president and others support.

Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-New York), sponsor of the legislation that threatened funding cuts, said Wednesday she wanted to "express her outrage and... disgust" over the committee decision. She said there are many precedents for setting nationwide standards, and that no state has ever lost funding because of such a law.

She mentioned the establishment in 1984 of 21 as the minimum age to drink alcohol, when then-President Ronald Reagan said the problem of drunk driving was bigger than individual states. "It's a grave national problem," Reagan said.

The committee decision means that, for now, the bill is not going to be considered by the full House of Representatives. However, Lowey and other supporters have said they will bring the bill before a joint committee of Senators and members of the House that meets to reconcile different versions of their legislation.