Lower drunk-driving standard finds new support with federal money at stake

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who once opposed the 0.08 plan, now favors it.

Molly Moker

Lowering the legal blood alcohol limit for drivers has failed several times in Minnesota, but this year members of congress and University students said Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s push to lower the limit sounds like a good idea.

“Drinking is fine,” junior Sarah Mollet said. “Drinking and driving is not. If lowering the limit will mean the difference between people having one more drink, then that could make a difference.”

Supporters claim the change is necessary because Minnesota will otherwise lose federal highway funding, but some fear the change will economically slam state bars and local governments.

Pawlenty is campaigning to lower Minnesota’s legal alcohol limit from 0.10 to 0.08. Minnesota is one of only five states that have not lowered to 0.08 since Congress passed a transportation bill in 2000 that revokes highway funds from states with a limit higher than 0.08.

Currently, the federal government is withholding $5.7 million of state and local highway construction funds. If Minnesota does not lower the legal limit by 2007, the state will lose $22.8 million.

Minnesota House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said he previously opposed the limit change but the lost federal money convinced him to support the change.

However, he said, the lower limit will cost local governments that will need to devote more resources to courts and law enforcement.

Despite Sviggum’s concern, Sen. Leo Foley, DFL-Coon Rapids – who has pushed lowering the legal limit since 1996 – said the federal highway funds will exceed the resources necessary to enforce the limit.

“There are arguments that we’ll need to increase the number of judges and public defenders,” Foley said. “But the amount put into that compared to the revenue that comes in from various fines, and the money saved from fatal accidents and hospitalizations, is not significant.”

Foley said that because more people will be convicted of drunk driving, the money from license renewal fines will also increase.

Additionally, the government seizes vehicles driven by drunk drivers in accidents, which Foley said will bring more money.

Not everyone, however, agrees lowering the limit will curb drunk driving.

Tom Day, vice president for government affairs at Hospitality Minnesota – an organization that represents 3,000 restaurants, hotels and resorts across the state – said a lower limit misses the target.

“Let’s clean up the real problem, drunks, first,” Day said. “The average alcohol-related fatality is at 0.18. We need to get these jerks off the road.”

Day is also concerned a lower limit will hurt the economy.

“There will absolutely be a decline in business,” Day said. “Instead of buying a bottle of wine to split, people will now only get one glass or maybe nothing at all because they are overly concerned.”

Although he supports the change, Sviggum said the lower limit will not affect drunk driving as efficiently as Felony DWI – a bill targeting repeat drunk drivers passed in 2002. He also said the lower limit might be extreme.

“There are negatives with this,” Sviggum said. “Will this make law- breakers out of those who stop for an occasional beer after work?”

Day said the sales risk is too great to take right now.

“With the economy being as poor as it is, this isn’t a good time for this to be done,” Day said.

Don Bye, general manager of Sally’s Saloon and Eatery, said a lower limit is necessary.

“It’s definitely going to make a difference (in traffic accidents),” Bye said. “People will think twice and be more careful about drinking and driving.”

Bye said a lower limit would help people remember their personal limits, even when celebrating.

“This will help them learn when to stop,” Bye said.

According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study, states that lowered their limits to 0.08 saw a 5 percent to 12 percent reduction in alcohol-related traffic deaths.

But Day said those numbers could be skewed because states implemented other drunk driving laws at the same time.

Although Day said he thinks the lower limit will pass, he will still make legislators consider all issues.

Foley said he is also certain it will pass in February and will most likely go into effect Aug. 1.

In Minnesota, drunk drivers killed 239 people last year.