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Lower Drunk-Driving Threshold Would Save Lives

July 27, 2000

Lower Drunk-Driving Threshold Would Save Lives

States Should Require .08 Blood Alcohol Level or Risk Highway Money

Remarks by Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen
Program Chair, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety

We re here today on the eve of a decision by Congress that is a matter of life and death.

The .08 Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) provision in the DOT appropriations bill would require each state to lower the drunk-driving threshold to .08 (BAC), for those states to receive their full share of federal highway funds. Public Citizen urges the conferees to keep this provision in the bill and send it to President Clinton for signature into law.

We must not have a re-run of 1998, when the .08 provisions, which had been passed with strong support in the Senate, fell victim to intense lobbying by alcohol and hospitality industry interests in the House. As a compromise that year, Congress adopted a weak incentive grant program that has resulted in only two states passing .08 laws. Unfortunately, too many key legislators were intoxicated with alcohol money and ignored their larger constituency.

At this critical juncture, Congress has the rare opportunity to save more than 500 lives a year and prevent tens of thousands of injuries with the mere stroke of a pen. No other provision in this appropriations bill can claim such an outcome, and we must not miss this chance to save so many lives.

Critics of the sanction provision claim it is an attack on states rights. It is not. The government and the people have an overriding interest in saving lives, which this provision would do just like similar national laws governing alcohol provisions for age 21 and zero tolerance. We have national laws governing food and water purity, auto and occupational safety. In transportation, there is no clearer example than federal airline safety laws. Why not a national alcohol law? It doesn t make sense that a person could be drunk in one state and then suddenly become sober merely by crossing the state line. The toll from alcohol-related crashes is too large to suggest that it doesn t warrant national attention.

Two earlier public safety laws, which include such sanctions provisions, have proven highly successful and secured bipartisan support. Our national 21 drinking-age law was passed by a Democratic Congress in 1984 under the leadership of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and signed by President Reagan. Everyone today recognizes the importance and effectiveness of this law, which is saving 1,000 lives every year more than 18,000 since it was passed.

In 1995 safety advocates, the Republican Congress and the Clinton administration joined together to pass the zero alcohol tolerance law with sanctions. And it has worked. Every state has already passed into law this requirement to protect our youth, and lives are being saved.

Not one state lost a penny of highway funds as a result of any of these crucial highway safety laws. Indeed, many billions of taxpayers dollars and untold trauma have been saved through adoption of these national laws.

Today Public Citizen and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety are here to urge the Congress to keep the .08 BAC provision. The conferees have to make a decision about what they stand for. Do they stand with the alcohol industry? Or do they stand with citizens on the side of saving lives? The choice is clear. The decision should be easy. Thank you.