Pawlenty expected to sign bill lowering blood alcohol limit

Stephanie Kudrle

Next fall, students might have to be more conscious of the number of drinks they consume if they are going to get behind the wheel.

A recent bill passed in the State Legislature lowers the blood alcohol concentration limit from .10 percent to .08 percent – meaning those who are caught driving with a .08 percent level or higher will be arrested and charged with drunk driving.

The bill passed both legislative chambers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty is expected sign it before the session ends, but a date enactment difference between the House and Senate bills will have to be resolved before the new limit becomes law.

While the Senate’s bill would go into effect in August 2004, the House passed a bill with a 2007 start date, which would go into effect in time to meet new federal regulations.

Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, sponsored the amendment that would push back the .08 percent starting date because he said it was the only way to get the bill passed.

He said there were 83 votes to reject the bill with the 2004 enactment and only 15 after the start time was pushed back.

“It would not have passed in its original form,” Howes said. “The bottom line is we got the bill off the floor.”

Sen. Leo Foley, DFL-Coon Rapids, said a conference committee made up of members from the House and Senate will try to reach a compromise on the time.

Foley, who sponsored the Senate bill, said he does not support a later start time because it would cost lives and money.

“Every day we delay implementation of this, there is the possibility for somebody to die in an accident,” he said.

If the new limit is not enacted this year, Minnesota will lose about $30 million in federal funding, Foley said.

Minnesota is one of three states that have not lowered the limit to comply with federal regulations.

In 2000, a new federal law said states have until 2007 to change the limit or risk permanently losing federal highway funding.

Money the government withheld last year, this year and the next two years, could total about $100 million by 2007.

Minnesota can recover the lost money in full when it enacts the new limit, Foley said, and an earlier start time would get the money sooner.

Daniel Wolter, the governor’s communications director, said Pawlenty supports lowering the limit and enacting the .08 percent in 2004.

Rep. Steve Strachan, R-Farmington, said waiting until 2007 would save counties some money from prosecuting more DWI cases and give the courts time to prepare for that increase.

While some police officers said they were unsure whether there would be more DWI arrests after the limit is lowered, others said they expect to see more with the change.

Between January 2003 and March 2004, there were 191 DWI arrests in the Minneapolis 2nd Precinct, which includes the Marcy-Holmes and Como neighborhoods and other areas where many University students live, said crime prevention specialist Nicole Nelson.

Minneapolis police Lt. Jeff Rugel, 2nd Precinct, said most people he arrests for DWI are well over .10 percent, and he is not sure if there will be an increase with the new limit.

He said most DWI arrests come after traffic violations and, he thought a lower limit is not likely to dissuade drunk drivers.

“There are people driving at .21,” he said. “Those people are seriously drunk, and a limit did not deter them.”

At 140 pounds, it takes four drinks over two hours to reach a .08 percent blood alcohol concentration, according to the University of Oklahoma Police Web site.

University police made 220 DWI arrests in 2003, University police Lt. Chuck Minor said.

He said he expects to see an increase in DWI arrests after the new limit goes into place.

“We occasionally do deal with people who are driving impaired at .08 or .09,” he said. “Now those people will be subject to arrests.”

Alan Rodgers, research analyst with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said DWI court cases will increase by about 1,500 if the .08 percent becomes law.

There were more than 33,000 DWI arrests in Minnesota last year, Rodgers said.