New Year Rings In Stiffer Drunk Law


Drinkers beware.

When the New Year begins at midnight, a tough new law will take effect making it all the more risky to drink and drive.

As the 1990s begin, law enforcement officers will be armed with a new blood alcohol standard that will reduce the amount of alcohol one can drink before being presumed drunk.

Under the new law, the existing blood alcohol standard of .10 will drop to .08. The difference is substantial.


A 150-pound person could have three drinks in an hour and still register below the .10 mark, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. But that same person would now have to limit the number of drinks to two in an hour to stay below the new standard.

The California Highway Patrol warns that New Year’s Eve party-goers should cut back on their drinking or find a way to stay away from the wheel.

“The law takes effect at one minute after midnight and that’s when we’re going to put it into effect,” said CHP Deputy Commissioner Spike Helmick. “People who are going to run the risk of drinking and driving had better drink less this year.”

Tonight, he noted, nearly every CHP officer in the state will be on duty and looking for drunk drivers.

But beyond New Year’s Eve, state officials hope the stricter standard will help persuade drinkers to change their habits permanently and avoid driving while intoxicated.

Helmick urged groups of drinkers to pick a designated driver who will remain sober. Or, he said, people who have had too much to drink should take a cab, call a friend or find another way home.

California is one of only four states to adopt the restrictive .08 blood alcohol level standard. The others are Maine, Oregon and Utah.

Sen. Bill Leonard (R-Big Bear), the author of the law, said medical evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that people are intoxicated when their blood alcohol level reaches .08%.


In fact, Leonard said, tests have shown that many individuals can be drunk at levels of .05 or less. Even at as low as a .02 blood alcohol level, drinking can interfere with a driver’s judgment, he said.

The amount of alcohol that will produce a .08 level varies from person to person and will depend on such factors as an individual’s weight and how recently he or she has eaten.

But for a person who weighs between 90 and 149 pounds, three drinks consumed during a two-hour period is almost certain to produce a blood alcohol level of .08, according to the CHP. (One drink is considered 12 ounces of beer, four ounces of wine or 1 1/4 ounces of 80-proof liquor.)

Similarly, for a person who weighs between 150 and 189 pounds, four drinks during a two-hour period will result in intoxication.


Leonard said his goal in carrying the bill was to reduce the number of drunk driving fatalities, not to increase the number of people arrested for driving under the influence.

“I don’t want to see anybody arrested,” he said. “I want to see people drinking and having fun and driving when sober.”

After years of rejecting the lower level, the Legislature agreed this year to adopt the .08 blood alcohol standard to reduce the number of deaths and fatalities on California’s highways.

More than 2,500 people died in 1988 as a result of drunk driving accidents and more than 65,000 others were injured. So far this year, 1,789 have died in drunk driving accidents.


The CHP’s Helmick estimates that 25,000 people have died in California during the 1980s as a result of drunk driving. During the same period, well over 3 million people have been arrested for driving while intoxicated.

At the same time, Helmick noted that the 1980s have seen the enactment of much tougher laws against drunk driving and an increasing perception that driving while intoxicated is socially unacceptable. Tougher penalties include a mandatory jail term and loss of driver’s license for the first offense and fines that can reach $1,500.

Even tougher laws have been passed by the Legislature and will take effect in the coming years. In 1992, truck drivers will be subject to a strict blood alcohol standard of .04.

And beginning in July, 1990, law enforcement officers will be authorized to immediately confiscate the driver’s license of anyone found to be driving under the influence. “We’re going to start taking away the licenses when the handcuffs go on,” Helmick said.


CHP Commissioner Maury Hannigan said the adoption of the .08 standard for motorists is a recognition of the fact that drivers are affected after consuming smaller amounts of alcohol than the state has acknowledged in the past.

“Most people are impaired to the point where it diminishes their driving skills and judgment after just two drinks in one hour,” Hannigan said. “People who drive after drinking are a threat to themselves and others on the road even if they only drank what we previously thought was a small amount.”


This chart shows the percentage of alcohol in the blood, for various weight levels, after one hour from the time the first drink was consumed. One drink is defined as a 12 ounce beer, a 4 ounce glass of wine or a 1 1/4 ounce shot of 80 proof liquor.


Under the new law that takes effect Jan. 1, a driver with .08% or higher is presumed to be drunk; however, those with lower levels could also be cited for drunk driving.

INDIVIDUAL NUMBER OF DRINKS IN ONE HOUR WEIGHT ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE 90-109 lbs. .05 .09 .13 .16 .20 110-129 lbs. .05 .08 .11 .14 .17 130-149 lbs. .04 .07 .09 .12 .15 150-169 lbs. .04 .06 .08 .11 .13 170-189 lbs. .04 .06 .08 .10 .12 190-209 lbs. .03 .05 .07 .09 .11 210-229 lbs. .03 .05 .07 .08 .10 230-up lbs. .03 .05 .06 .08 .09

SOURCE: California Department of Motor Vehicles