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Reduced incidence of drunk driving deaths encourages tougher laws.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported recently that fatal crashes involving alcohol dropped by 2 percent in 1993. There were 17,461 fatalities in alcoholrelated crashes during the year, the lowest number since the agency began tracking them.

NHTSA also reported, however, that 35 percent of all traffic fatalities in 1993 occurred in crashes in which at least one driver or pedestrian was legally intoxicated. Some amount of alcohol was present in 44 percent of all fatal crashes last year.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena said, "Much progress has been made in reducing the number of deaths and injuries on the nation's highways, but motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death for every age from 5 to 32."

A steadily decreasing fatality rate--1.8 fatalities per 100 million miles last year, down from 2.6 recorded in 1983--has been attributed to a number of safety improvements, including more widespread use of seat belts, child restraints, and motorcycle helmets. The decline in alcoholrelated fatalities follows public-service campaigns promoting sensible drinking, heightened enforcement in some states, lawsuits against irresponsible bartenders, and a growing societal disapproval of public drunkennss. (Benjamin Kelley, Keeping Drunks off the Road, L.A. Daily J., June 8, 1994, at 6.)

The progress has encouraged the safety agency to launch a "Campaign Safe & Sober" this year to try to decrease the number of fatalities related to alcohol. The campaign includes encouragement of sobriety checkpoints, strict law enforcement, and new legislation to broaden the definition of drunk driving by lowering the blood- alcohol level at which a driver is considered legally drunk.

NHTSA and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) are pressing state legislatures to replace the .10 (percentage of alcohol in the blood) threshold with .08 for adults and .02 for drivers under 21. The American Medical Association would like to see the over-21 limit drop to .05. The Department of Health and Human Services wants a limit of .04 by the year 2000.

The campaign has run into considerable opposition. Hotel and restaurant owners fear a chilling effect on bar sales to social drinkers. Many private citizens apparently think that the campaign against drunk driving is spinning out of control, lurching toward prohibition. (Katherine Griffin, Mothers Against Drunk Driving Wants to Cut You Off at Even Fewer Drinks, HEALTH, July/August 1994, at 63, 64.)

MADD founder Candy Lightner, now a spokesperson for the American Beverage Institute, publicly opposes the campaign for lowering the drunk driving threshold. Lightner argues that .08 will not get the most dangerous drivers off the road. Drivers with blood-alcohol levels above .10, she says, cause more than 80 percent of drunk driving deaths. She favors harsher penalties for guzzlers, not intimidation for social drinkers.

"This [.08] is a feel-good, do-nothing law," said Lightner. A serious attempt to save lives, she said, would involve lowering speed limits or raising the driving age, both politically more difficult to achieve.

Proponents of .08, on the other hand, say that one tangible effect of lower limits is higher conviction rates for drivers who register .10. Since a .08 law took effect in California in 1990, for example, the number of people convicted at .10 and .11 has more than doubled, suggesting that prosecutors were avoiding close calls so as not to become entangled in disputes over the accuracy of testing devices.
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Author:Dilworth, Donald C.
Date:Oct 1, 1994
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