Blood alcohol levels debated

by Chris Vetter

Tom Meyer took the floor of the Senate Crime Prevention Committee on Wednesday, showing photos of an overturned car, and slowly talked about the death of his only son. His son had been driving drunk and died in a one-car accident.
Meyer spoke to the committee, endorsing a bill that would lower the blood-alcohol level needed for a motorist to be classified as legally intoxicated from .10 to .08. He said he favors legislation that will keep more people from getting behind the wheel of a car and killing someone.
Although opponents feared that many casual drinkers would be negatively affected, Meyer said he had no problems with the law catching more first-time offenders.
“Will it get more casual drinkers?” Meyer said. “I’m all for it.”
The bill passed a committee vote 15-1, and will be sent to the Transportation Committee.
Currently, 13 states have lowered the blood-alcohol level required to be classified as legally intoxicated to .08. Congress passed a law that will cut off federal alcohol safety enforcement and education funding in 1999 to any state that has not lowered their standard to .08. Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who is sponsoring the bill, said Minnesota would lose $1 million of federal funding annually were it not to change.
The bill includes all motorized vehicles, such as cars, snowmobiles and boats. The bill comes during a winter in which 25 Minnesotans have been killed in snowmobile accidents, many of which were alcohol-related.
Marty said he was pleased with the committee’s overwhelming vote.
“A driver who is at .08 is 16 times more likely to get into an accident than a sober driver,” Marty said. “That is serious enough to say, let’s get them off the road.'”
To reach a blood-alcohol level of .10, a 120-pound man would probably need to consume five drinks in an hour, while a woman of similar build would likely need to consume four drinks. The lowered standard would reduce the drinks needed to become legally drunk to four drinks consumed in one hour for men, and three for women. However, these numbers do not reflect whether a person has eaten during that time, which would lower the blood-alcohol content.
Lieutenant Mark Peterson, of the Minnesota State Highway Patrol, said he has made more than 1,000 driving-while-intoxicated arrests, and favors the tougher legislation.
“We make this issue more difficult than it is,” Peterson said. “Quite simply, at .08, you are impaired. You should not be handling a motorized vehicle.”
Mothers Against Drunk Driving estimates that 500 to 600 lives could be prevented in the United States annually if all states adopted the .08 level.
Opposition to the bill comes from bars and beverage distributors, who fear that too many casual drinkers will be penalized under this law. John Berglund, the executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, said the bill won’t save lives, and will reduce alcohol sales.
“Virtually every study shows (the bill) will have a negative impact on on-premise sales,” Berglund said.
The senate would be better to pass stronger legislation against those who are repeat offenders of the existing law rather than create a more strict standard for what level makes a person legally drunk, Berglund added.
Committee chairman Sen. Allan Spear, DFL-Minneapolis, was the only member voting against the bill. He said he was not impressed with either groups’ arguments, and said he wasn’t sure if the bill would actually save lives.
The bill now must move to the House, where it is sponsored by Rep. Doug Swenson, R-Forest Lake, whose son was killed by a drunk driver in 1989. No committee meetings on the legislation are set, but will be in the near future, Marty said.
ù In other legislative news, the House of Representatives voted 129-2 on Wednesday to pass a bill that will return $337 million of projected cuts in K-12 education funding to the school districts.
The bill had been held up over the past week as the Senate added an amendment to its version of the bill that included statewide proficiency testing of students. Minnesota was one of only four states in the country that did not have required testing.
Under the new law, students in grades three, five, eight, and 11 will have mandatory statewide testing.
Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, said the tests were needed to show that Minnesota schools are accountable to taxpayers.
The Senate will approve the bill in session today, and it will be sent to Gov. Carlson on May 1. Carlson is expected to sign the legislation.