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SOME states resisting tighter drunken driving standard passed last fall by Congress

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) _ When Congress passed a law last fall requiring states to lower the standard for drunken driving or lose millions in federal highway funds, it seemed like a sure thing for advocates who had spent years pushing the change.

The toughest part of their fight, however, had only just begun.

Since President Clinton signed the law, few states have adopted legislation dropping the threshold to 0.08 percent blood alcohol content.

``It hasn't been an easy battle in any state,'' said John Moulden, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Commission Against Drunk Driving.

In some states, the measures were met with resistance from key lawmakers. Elsewhere, the bills never made it out of committee or died when the legislative session ended.

``If I was convinced that it alone would significantly deter the repeat drunk driver then I would support it, but I do not believe it will,'' said Sen. Dave Kleis of Minnesota, where a 0.08 bill died this year in committee and was rejected a second time as an amendment to a bill before the full Senate.

``Besides, states need to send the federal government a message _ that it's not OK to blackmail us into passing laws that the federal government wants but can't impose,'' Kleis said.

Clinton signed the bill in October, saying it would save 500 lives a year. Opponents argue it won't curb drunken-driving deaths.

States that don't lower the legal standard by Oct. 1, 2003, will lose 2 percent of federal money for everything from filling potholes to fixing bridges and widening highways. The penalty increases 2 percent for each year of noncompliance, to a maximum of 8 percent.

Ohio, for example, could lose $30 million in 2004 and up to $65 million in 2007. The Ohio Association of County Commissioners maintains lowering the state's limit from 0.10 percent would put increased demands on jails and courts, costing counties $2.1 million a year.

``I would do anything I really thought was going to reduce accidents and deaths from drunken drivers,'' Ohio Senate President Richard Finan said. ``However, going to 0.08, not only in my opinion but all the studies I've read, doesn't address the problem.''

When the federal mandate was passed, 19 states and the District of Columbia had the 0.08 standard. Massachusetts' law considered a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent as evidence _ but not proof _ of drunkenness. The others had a 0.10 standard.

Since then, legislatures in 10 states have approved 0.08 bills.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving pushed for the federal mandate after being rebuffed by state lawmakers for years, said Millie I. Webb, the group's national president.

``We have state lawmakers who listen only to the special interests and not the public interests,'' Webb said.

MADD cites cases such as that of Traci Jungkurth, 41, of Westerville, Ohio, whose husband and 8-year-old son were killed in 1996 on a Tennessee highway. The driver who hit the family's vehicle had a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent.

``He was drunk enough to be impaired and kill my family, but he wasn't drunk enough to get a DUI charge,'' Jungkurth said.

The American Beverage Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based association of restaurant operators, says there's no evidence to support the argument of how many lives would be saved with the 0.08 limit.

``It's all political. It's the wrong approach to a very serious problem,'' spokesman John Doyle said.

In Wyoming, a 0.08 bill died this year when a Senate committee declined to discuss it. A similar measure made it out of a House committee but was never put before the full House for a vote.

Although Wyoming Sen. Dick Erb acknowledges a 0.08 bill probably will be approved next year because the federal money is needed, he remains irked by the federal mandate.

``I'm just sick and tired of people in Washington not knowing what's going on in the West and telling us what to do anyway,'' he said. ``But in this case, our hands are tied.''

In other states, lawmakers didn't give the measure priority this year because penalties don't kick in for another two.

West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise proposed a 0.08 bill, but it sat untouched in the House and Senate judiciary committees and died when session ended earlier this year. Wise intends to push the bill again next session.

And, an Iowa judiciary committee held off discussing a 0.08 bill there because state Sen. Gene Maddox, the committee chairman, saw no urgency in passing it this time around, especially because the issue likely would be contentious.

Some state lawmakers haven't been deterred by the opposition.

Indiana Sen. Tom Wyss tried for 11 years to get 0.08 legislation passed. The change was approved this year and takes effect in July.

In Ohio, Rep. Rex Damschroder says that if a bill to lower Ohio's limit from 0.10 isn't approved this year, lawmakers will try again in 2003, when Finan won't be in the Legislature because of term limits.

``Show's not over. This will save lives. That's the bottom line,'' Damschroder said.
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