Lower limits aid fight

Three young men from Coon Rapids will never have the chance to go to college. Mitchell August Erickson, 18, Travis Daniel McNamara, 19, and Trevor Ray Kurth, 18, were killed instantly last weekend when their car plowed into a pole. Erickson, the driver, was allegedly drunk and fell asleep at the wheel. Sadly, McNamara’s dad was killed a few years back by a drunken snowmobiler.
Although personal and family responsibility is the ultimate solution to drunken driving, lowering Minnesota’s intoxication threshold will only help. A bill before the Minnesota Legislature would lower the legal blood-alcohol limit for driving from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent. In January, the House Judiciary Committee endorsed the bill 16-3, but the bill has yet to pass. Lawmakers already stiffened penalties for the worst offenders. License plates are impounded after a second offense and vehicles are taken away on the third conviction. Both penalties apply sooner if the driver’s blood-alcohol content is twice the legal limit. A zero-tolerance policy already exists for school bus drivers. Many states have “zero tolerance laws” that punish minors. So public policy is moving in the right direction. A lower limit for Minnesota will bolster the anti-drunken driving effort.
A 170-pound man reaches 0.08 percent after having four drinks in an hour. Another drink brings them to 0.10 percent. Women of average weight consume about a drink less to reach those levels. Opponents of lowering the limit argue that most people drink over a span of time and that a blood-alcohol level also depends on how much a person has eaten and how much body fat they have. Other opponents claim arrests for less than 0.10 distracts officers from more serious offenders. But people are dying from drinking and driving, and any tolerance greater than zero poses some risk.
University of Minnesota Police Sgt. Jo Anne Benson recently said that University police have their share of drunken driving arrests, and don’t have the resources to support the city’s NightCAP initiative to hunt down drunk drivers. NightCAP is federally funded and coordinated by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Police pick a certain area and stop drivers for any traffic offense, including equipment violations. Benson said the University Police force is at full staff during events with a high occurrence of drinking such as Homecoming and at the start of each quarter. But policing and tough laws are external controls. Whether a drinker gets behind the wheel is an individual question. There are some lines that even drunks don’t cross — even the most uninhibited drinkers don’t sleep with their siblings — and driving needs to become one.
Lowering the blood-alcohol limit to 0.08 will help create a social climate in which drunken driving doesn’t happen. Taken alone, the measure will have a minimal deterrent effect. But along with tougher sentences and stepped-up enforcement, the new limit will help foster the kind of personal responsibility that will save lives. The same social forces that prevent drinkers from committing incest can keep the roads sober. Lowering the legal limit will help ensure that fewer high school seniors die on the roads before they get to the University.