State blood alcohol bill proposes legal limit change

Libby George

Opponents of new drunk driving legislation fear it will cripple liquor sales, crowd county jails and bankrupt local governments.

The bill – currently in House and Senate committees – would lower the legal blood alcohol limit to 0.08. The limit is currently 0.10 in Minnesota, and similar bills have been introduced – and defeated – in the Legislature before.

But now, federal highway funding hangs in the balance.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2001, signed by former President Clinton in October 2000, required that all states lower their per se legal limit to 0.08 by October 2004, or begin to lose federal highway funding at a rate increasing 2 percent per year. In Minnesota, this would mean the state Department of Transportation would lose $6.64 million the first year, $13.28 million the second year, and increase to as much as $25 million. However, states get the money back if they lower the limit to 0.08 by the end of 2007.

Bill author Sen. Leo Foley, DFL-Coon Rapids, called this bill “the most important bill that is not related to the budget,” adding that it is about saving lives and not money.

Opponents charge, however, that the bill is linked to the state’s finances.

“This is going to cost the taxpayers millions of dollars,” said Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia. He said “it will be a lot tougher to get it through the House than it is the Senate.”

Rukavina said responsibility for apprehending and prosecuting the offenders would fall on the counties, which would cost them millions in additional expenses.

Keith Carlson of the Metropolitan Inter-County Association said additional court costs, housing for offenders and probation after prosecution would cost counties more than $2 million per year, which he said was particularly inappropriate in the current budget crisis.

“They could deal with this in 2006, and there would be no cost to the state,” Carlson said.

Supporters of the bill, however, point to the 34 states with 0.08 blood alcohol level limits as evidence the legislation would save lives. In California, the rate of drunk driving deaths fell in the early 1990s after 0.08 blood alcohol level legislation was enacted.

Supporters also claim there is conclusive evidence that all drivers are impaired at 0.08 blood alcohol level.

“Within the scientific community, they believe at 0.08 all people are impaired to operate a motor vehicle,” said David Peterson, assistant director of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s forensic laboratory.

“Those of us who have the responsibility to make sure our highways are as safe as possible have learned that 0.08 is a better mark for impairment,” said Maj. Mike Asleson of the State Patrol.

Asleson said police can arrest people for alcohol offenses regardless of the offender’s blood alcohol concentration, but he said “that doesn’t happen in the real world,” and the chances of conviction for those people are “grim.”

Although Foley said he believed Public Safety Commissioner Rich Stanek would support the bill, Susan Lasley of the Department of Public Safety Policy said the department was neutral, but she gave a statement which she said represented the department as well as Stanek.

“We believe that 0.08 is one of the many deterrents proven to be effective against drunk driving; however, costs to the locals are significant,” Lasley said. “Timing may not be right this year.”

Kenn Rockler, Minnesota Hospitality Association executive director, said his organization’s main concern is that bill proponents actually favor prohibition.

“They really just want to make it (only) legal to use Listerine,” Rockler said.

He said Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapters in states such as Arizona support 0.05 blood alcohol limits. He said the Illinois Hospitality Association president told him that state’s liquor sales went down 20 percent when 0.08 blood alcohol level legislation was enacted.

“It’s the responsible people who are going to be taking a look at this,” Rockler said. “If this thing saved lives, nobody would be challenging it.”

Bill co-author Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley and Finance Committee vice chairman, said the bill has a better chance of passing this year because “key leaders in the House and Senate who blocked the bill before are gone.”

Chaudhary said the current budget situation should not affect bill passage.

“It has always been a good time to pass this bill,” he said.

Libby George covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]