Safety must be motivator

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 24, 2001

The right reason for lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit for drunken driving in Minnesota is safety.

Tuesday, April 24, 2001

The right reason for lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit for drunken driving in Minnesota is safety.

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The more realistic reason for lowering it from 0.1 blood-alcohol content to 0.08 is money. Federal legislation passed last year dictates that Minnesota will lose up to $9 million in the next three years and up to $70 million by 2006 – in federal aid – if the driving under the influence limit is not lowered.

Unfortunately, money also is the reason Minnesota legislators again are struggling in their efforts to pass the 0.08 standard. This session committees in both houses rejected the 0.08 measure largely due to its affect county budgets for prosecuting and jailing more drunken drivers.

The effort could be revived though, because lawmakers backing the 0.08 standard hold enough clout to still include it in general bills for criminal justice or judiciary programs. They should include it and force legislators to address the issue once and for all.

Yes, concerns about costs are valid. But this is a state noted for budgeted surpluses and one in which 71 percent of Minnesotans rate drunken driving as a serious problem. Considering those facts, the law needs to be changed and funded accordingly.

Plus, there is a growing national wave of support for the 0.08 standard.

Last week, on the same day the Minnesota House Transportation Finance Committee voted 10-4 against a 0.08 bill, national liquor industry representatives jumped on board efforts by the federal government and Mothers Against Drunk Driving to push states to adopt the lower standard.

Industry officials said they do so as part of a package of laws aimed at motorists who repeatedly drive drunk. Other parts of that package include adopting laws giving states the power to seize cars driven by repeat drunken drivers, increasing penalties for those with multiple drunken driving convictions and requiring those convicted of drunken driving to undergo treatment.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have a 0.08 standard, with Arizona expected to join those ranks.

These states have all seen the right reasons for making the change. The 0.08 limit can save lives and make roads safer. Estimates project 500 U.S. lives a year could be saved with it. In Minnesota, 20 of 195 drinking-related fatal crashes in 1999 involved drivers with 0.09 readings or lower.

Other national studies have shown that motorists with levels of 0.08 or higher drive as much as 2 billion miles per year and are involved in crashes that injure more than 41,000 people annually.

Clearly, the 0.08 standard is an important step Minnesota can take to make its roads safer. Yes, it comes with a price. But still, it’s the right thing to do. Legislators should find the courage and the cash to do it yet this session.