By TERENCE HUNT
WASHINGTON – President Clinton, after a three-year struggle with Congress, signed a bill today that would set a tough national standard for drunken driving and, according to proponents, prevent 500 highway deaths a year.
“For me this is a very good day for the United States,” the president said. He said the measure was “the biggest step to toughen drunk driving laws and reduce alcohol-related crashes since the national minimum drinking age was established a generation ago.”
The new law requires states to implement a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content standard as the legal level for drunken driving by 2004. States that fail to impose that standard would begin losing millions of dollars a year in federal highway funds.
The provision was tucked into a compromise $58 billion transportation spending bill that was stuffed with pre-election highway, mass transit and aviation projects for every state.
Clinton said the 0.08 standard was a “common-sense nationwide limit” that will save an estimated 500 lives a year and prevent thousands of injuries.
A 170-pound man could consume approximately four drinks in an hour on an empty stomach before reaching 0.08 limit, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics cited by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. A 137-pound woman could have three drinks in an hour before reaching 0.08.
The president was joined in a Rose Garden ceremony by Millie Webb, national president of MADD, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and representatives of highway safety, civic and health organizations.
Opponents of the 0.08 standard, including the restaurant and alcohol industries, say the measure would penalize social drinkers while ignoring the bigger problem of repeat offenders who drink heavily.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia already have 0.08 laws, and in Massachusetts a level of 0.08 is considered evidence but not proof of impairment. Thirty-one states define drunken driving as 0.10 percent blood alcohol content.
In 1999, 15,786 traffic deaths were attributed to drunken driving, including more than 2,200 children.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving cites studies showing that a driver with 0.08 blood alcohol content is 11 times more likely to be involved in a fatal collision than a sober driver.
The transportation bill’s overwhelming passage was fueled by its scores of road, mass transit and aviation projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars for districts from coast to coast.
To accommodate that, the measure was $7.3 billion higher than last year’s level, $3.3 billion more than Clinton requested and nearly $3 billion larger than earlier versions passed by the House and Senate.
That made room for $1.97 billion for specific highway projects that neither the Senate or House had approved earlier, including $600 million for a federally owned Potomac River bridge outside Washington, D.C.
There were also separate $100 million projects for West Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi – home states, respectively, of Sen. Robert Byrd, top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee; GOP Sen. Richard Shelby, chairman of the Appropriations transportation subcommittee; and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.
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