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A Spirited Debate Over DUI Laws

Times Staff Writer

A high-pressure federal effort to toughen drunk driving laws across the nation is meeting resistance in a third of the states, where many politicians say the policy is counterproductive and misguided.

Highway safety regulators in 1998 called on states to lower the allowable blood-alcohol level for drivers to 0.08%, or risk losing millions of dollars in federal highway grants.

The majority of the states have conformed, but 17 states -- from Minnesota to South Carolina and Nevada to Delaware -- have rejected the approach and maintain laws that define drunk driving at 0.10% blood-alcohol.

Though no one defends drunk drivers or suggests abandoning the campaign against them, the states say federal officials have not shown that 0.08% laws save lives. Critics say the tougher laws weaken the emphasis on catching hard-core drunks who cause the most deadly crashes and saddle states with the costs of prosecuting tens of thousands of additional violators.

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“I don’t think there would be one person saved by a .08 law,” said Tom Rukavina, a Minnesota legislator representing the state’s Iron Range, a sparsely populated region west of Lake Superior. “All we would have is more arrests. Almost every court case up here already involves drunk driving.”

Rukavina estimates that a 0.08% law would result in 6,000 additional criminal arrests costing the state about $60 million, outweighing the potential loss of federal highway funding. Nevada legislators have voted down 0.08% laws repeatedly for similar reasons, said Bernie Anderson, chairman of the state Assembly Judiciary Committee.

The federal-state standoff reflects broader controversies about the nation’s campaign against drunk driving.

Some safety experts express frustration that the campaign against drunk driving has become such a politically powerful force that many safety issues involving roads, car standards and driver behavior are left in the shadows.

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They say the dimensions of the drunk driving problem also may be misrepresented by complex government statistics.

Federal officials reject the criticism, asserting that 0.08% laws save lives and that the statistics showing that 40% of highway deaths involve alcohol do not exaggerate the problem.

In the midst of the holiday season, the airwaves are again filled with warnings to motorists to avoid drinking and driving. An average of 1,000 alcohol-related deaths occur between Christmas and New Year’s, the deadliest holiday period of the year.

Jeffrey Runge, chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, launched a campaign this month to further step up enforcement, citing the continuing threat posed by “1 billion drinking and driving trips annually, which kill more than 45 people every day.”

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Nobody questions that the fight against drunk driving has resulted in tremendous progress during the last half a century, saving by some estimates 21,000 lives and radically changing the public mind-set about alcohol.

But progress in reducing drunk driving deaths has stalled in recent years. Between 1993 and 2001, alcohol-related driving deaths leveled out at about 17,000 a year despite many states adopting tougher laws and stepped-up enforcement.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the most powerful advocacy group on the issue and a driving force behind the federal government’s push to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit, says the nation risks losing the battle and must pass even stricter laws, raise beer taxes and beef up enforcement.

Federal officials launched a holiday season campaign with the motto: “You Drink & Drive, You Lose.” The advice for drivers is to avoid all drinking.

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But many state officials and some accident experts worry that other types of driver impairments may not be getting the same kind of attention.

“Theoretically, very small amounts of alcohol in your blood impairs you, but so do antihistamines and lack of sleep,” said Brian O’Neill, president of the highly respected Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“We should focus on people who are seriously impaired at the kind of levels that are illegal. That’s one reason the problem is overstated.”

Advocates for safer cars and improved roads support the drunk driving effort, but say federal officials lack the same commitment to preventing the nearly 24,700 highway deaths involving sober drivers last year. That death toll has leaped 39% in the last two decades.

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“There are other elements to highway safety than stopping drunk drivers,” said Bella Dinh-Zarr, director of traffic safety policy at the American Automobile Assn. “We don’t think [the campaign against drunk driving] is a silver bullet.”

Added Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, an organization that often butts heads with the auto industry and government concerning vehicle safety standards: “It is a lot easier and cheaper to blame the driver than to blame the vehicle or the road design.”

The federal highway safety agency has made drunk driving its priority, spending more than $300 million annually on the issue, more than half its budget. Apart from the money, the issue occupies center stage politically, a coveted position MADD fiercely defends.

“We don’t want cell phones and drowsy driving to become the next hot-button issue for the country, because they don’t even compare with the problem of drunk driving,” MADD President Wendy Hamilton said.

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One of MADD’s most unlikely critics, however, is its founder, Candace Lightner. She says MADD has turned into a “neo-prohibitionist” organization that has lost its focus on safety.

“I thought the emphasis on .08 laws was not where the emphasis should have been placed,” she said. “The majority of crashes occur with high blood-alcohol levels, the .15, .18 and .25 drinkers. Lowering the blood-alcohol concentration was not a solution to the alcohol problem.”

The toll of drunk driving is tabulated annually by the NHTSA; its Fatality Analysis Reporting System compiles figures from accident reports by police across the country.

In 2001, the system reported that alcohol-involved crashes took the lives of 17,448 people. That includes cases where there was direct evidence of alcohol and others where no evidence of alcohol was reported. Those cases are statistically estimated by a complex mathematical model that uses variables such as driver age, time of crash and gender. For example, if a young man hits a tree early in the morning, the model would classify the crash as alcohol-related, even without any evidence of alcohol.

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A breakdown of the 17,448 deaths in 2001 includes:

* About 2,500 to 3,500 crash deaths in which no driver was legally drunk but alcohol was detected.

* 1,770 deaths involved drunk pedestrians killed when they walked in front of sober drivers.

* About 8,000 deaths involved only a single car and in most of those cases the only death was the drunk driver.

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* That leaves about 5,000 sober victims killed by legally drunk drivers.

Those statistics are compiled largely through police reports that sometimes provide an incomplete and equivocal historical record.

Police sometimes blame alcohol with little or no evidence. For example, when Alabama State Trooper Darrick Dorough investigated a fatal crash last year in the town of Aliceville, he suspected that the driver, Marvin B. Turnipseed, had been drinking. No alcohol test was reported and the family would later allege in a lawsuit that a defect caused their Ford Explorer to roll over.

Now Dorough can’t recall why he suspected drinking. “I don’t think drinking was the primary cause of the accident. It could have contributed to it. That’s a guess.”

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Nonetheless, NHTSA Administrator Runge says the agency’s statistics and its mathematical models to estimate drunk driving data are scientifically valid and represent the actual risks of alcohol consumption in the U.S.

“It doesn’t overstate it at all,” Runge said. “The question is, is it a solvable problem? It is solvable.”

More than 1.5 million people in the U.S. will be stopped, handcuffed and detained on drunk driving charges this year, putting it near the top categories of criminal behavior. A heavy legal hammer falls on the convicted, often including mandatory jail time, heavy fines and large legal defense costs. A drunk driving arrest can cost a motorist $10,000, as well as license suspension.

While critics say that’s well-deserved punishment, they are concerned that merely arresting more drivers will not reduce highway deaths.

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The federal push for lowering the blood-alcohol limit to 0.08% is based on the assertion that it would save 500 lives per year nationwide, according to the formal rule issued by the NHTSA. But that estimate is highly controversial.

A June 1999 report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that NHTSA’s death reduction estimate was based on four studies that were flawed and failed to “provide conclusive evidence that 0.08% ... laws by themselves have resulted in reductions in drunk driving crashes and fatalities.”

The NHTSA estimate also seems squishy to some drunk driving researchers.

“You are not going to see a big statistical difference between .08 and .10 blood alcohol level,” said Kurt M. Dubowski, a pioneer in drunk driving medical research at Indiana University.

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“While we lower the standard, brakes are getting better, highways are becoming safer, but congestion is growing. You can’t peel those factors apart.”

But the NHTSA’s Runge argues strongly that impairment begins with the first sip of alcohol.

“Is it better to drive stone cold sober? Sure,” he said. “Clearly, by .08 virtually all of the population is too impaired to react to a simple emergency.”

Joseph Carra, director of the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, the NHTSA office that compiles the data, contends that all 17,448 alcohol-related highway deaths in 2001 would have been prevented if alcohol was removed from every driver.

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NHTSA rests its case with studies such as those conducted by Herbert Moskowitz, a medical doctor, who is president of the Southern California Research Institute and regarded as a top alcohol researcher.

“There is no question that with any level of alcohol you increase the probability of a crash,” Moskowitz said. “Most people don’t realize the effects of low blood-alcohol. You are not intoxicated. You are not staggering.”

A Moskowitz study, funded by NHTSA in April 2000, noted that activities requiring mental activity begin to degrade at below 0.05% blood-alcohol levels. Specifically, low levels of alcohol impair the ability to perform tasks that require divided attention, commonplace in driving.

But many accident investigators say it is often wrong to automatically blame alcohol whenever it is present in a crash.

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“If you were to take away all that alcohol, would you take away all those accidents?” asked Kerry M. Clark, a human factors accident investigator in Southern California. “No. I can say that pretty strongly.

“I hate drunk drivers with a passion,” he said, “but I have reviewed many circumstances where accidents by drunk drivers involved a reaction within the normal range of human response. In some cases, people would still make mistakes.”

Among the states that still have 0.10% laws, there are bitter feelings about the federal government’s pressure.

Under NHTSA’s rule, the states that refuse to lower the drunk driving limit are losing portions of a six-year, $500-million incentive grant program. Brad Hutto, a South Carolina senator, has long opposed a lower legal limit and says he doubts his state will change its law even with the loss of funds.

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“I call it blackmail,” said Stewart Iverson, the Iowa Senate majority leader. “Why is .08 the magic number? By lowering it to .08, we are going to catch more of what I call the social drinkers. I had two friends killed by drunk drivers, but we have to be realistic.”

And in Ohio, the anger is equally great.

“Nobody is for drunk driving, but they are after the wrong end of the stick,” said Richard Finan, president of the Ohio Senate. “The people who have had a few beers or a glass of wine are not the problem. We call it prohibition drip by drip. It is prohibitionists who want this. Their goal is zero tolerance.”

MADD President Hamilton said she has heard such criticism many times before.

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“My family has seen a lot of sorrow because of drunk driving, but it doesn’t mean people should stop drinking. I am sitting here right now with a beer,” Hamilton said on the evening she was interviewed by The Times.

MADD and its allies say the legislators are influenced by the alcohol and restaurant lobby. Legislators and their advocates deny that allegation and say MADD’s $50-million annual budget distorts the issue.

Although highway safety organizations endorse tough drunk driving laws, they lament the government’s lack of commitment on other issues. Jackie Gillan, a vice president for Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, notes that federal regulators have set a formal goal of reducing drunk driving deaths to 11,000 a year by 2005.

“Why don’t they have a goal for reducing rollover deaths, which is increasing yearly and now exceeds 10,000 deaths a year,” Gillan asked. “Their solution to rollover is to get people to buckle up to prevent death and injury. What about preventing the rollover from occurring in the first place?”

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Roadway safety advocates say they are in the same boat.

“It is easier to pass a law that raises the threshold on drunk driving than it is to get rid of dead man’s curve,” said William Fay, president of the Roadway Safety Foundation.

“A lot of politicians don’t want to spend money on things that don’t have high visibility. But 15,000 deaths are caused every year due to maintenance and design of roadways. Our roads are designed for a fraction of the current traffic load.”


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