Washington once again is drunk with power. This week, House and Senate conferees agreed to set a national .08 blood alcohol level to define drunken driving, and to penalize states that do not adopt the standard by holding back on some of their share of federal highway funds. Both houses are expected to pass the measure.
This agreement is an outrage for two reasons. First, states are supposed to write their own drunken-driving laws. Different states have different motorists, different roadways and different problems.
Still, Uncle Sam wants to pressure 32 states that have higher drunken-driving alcohol levels to join the 18 states with a .08 Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) standard. (To meet the .08 standard, a 170-pound man would have to drink four cans of beer in an hour on an empty stomach, a hungry 120-pound woman would have to consume the equivalent of two six-ounce glasses of wine over two hours.)
House GOP leader Dick Armey tried to defeat the measure on states' rights grounds. Aide Michelle Davis explained, "The federal government takes your money in gas taxes, and it's your money. It shouldn't be conditioned on other things."
It shouldn't -- but the climate in Washington is such that few politicians dare stand on principle. (Hail Armey, a noble exception.) Enough Repubs caved, and so the federal government grows larger.
Which begs the question: Why have Republicans on the Hill if they won't stand up for states' rights?
Second, while Mothers Against Drunk Driving claims the bill will save some 500 lives per year, it is not clear that it will.
Last year, the General Accounting Office released a report that found "that the evidence does not conclusively establish that .08 BAC laws, by themselves, reduce the number and severity of alcohol-related crashes." The GAO found that there are "strong indications" that .08 in conjunction "with other drunk-driving laws" (particularly license revocation laws) reduces crashes.
Will Congress mandate those laws as well? Or do lawmakers just want to codify a change that isn't conclusive?
California's drunken-driving fatalities fell from 2,509 in 1989, when the level was .10, to 2,382 in 1990. (The toll fell to 1,170 last year, although the BAC level didn't change.)
Asked about the GAO finding, MADD President Millie Webb answered, ".08 in combination with other comprehensive (drunken-driving) laws saves lives." That's right; alone, it may not work.
Rick Berman of the American Beverage Institute in Washington was the first to admit that a person's driving could be impaired at .04 -- a law enforcement spokesman with whom I spoke agreed -- but he argued that .08 should not be the legal threshold.
Webb knows too well that .08 can kill. She lost a daughter and a nephew in a crash with a driver whose blood alcohol level was .08.
Still, 1999 federal statistics show that drivers in 74 percent of fatal accidents involving alcohol registered BACs of .11 or greater; most of them were double the legal limit. Of the 20 percent of fatalities caused by drivers whose alcohol level was .08 or lower, half registered .01 to .04.
Those people aren't the big problem. The big problem is the repeat-offender, who is plastered -- not the driver at .08. Consider Kirti Bhagwan, the thrice-convicted drunken driver who killed 6-year-old Brenda Guillen last year. His blood alcohol level was five times the legal limit. He scored .20 when he was arrested for a third offense in 1998. He should not have been a free man when he killed that poor child.
Berman asks whether the federal government should criminalize .08 drinkers when it fails to prosecute hard-core drunken drivers. At the very least, that's a question states should decide.