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State ready to stiffen DUI law

| Sunday, May 13, 2012, 2:55 a.m.

If a bourbon, a scotch and a couple of beers figure in your New Year's Eve festivities, you'll be legally drunk in Pennsylvania when your blood-alcohol concentration reaches 0.10 percent.

Next year, the state expects to lower the limit to 0.08 percent.

But not without a little "prodding" from the federal government.

Beginning Oct. 1, the U.S. Department of Transportation will withhold federal highway construction money from states that do not set their blood-alcohol concentration level at 0.08 percent.

States that do not adopt the lower limit will have 2 percent of certain highway construction funds withheld each year — up to 8 percent by fiscal year 2007.

Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia already have lowered their blood-alcohol limits. Five of them did it this year.

But in Pennsylvania, a proposal to lower the blood-alcohol limit was stripped from a state House bill at the end of the legislative session.

Lawmakers said they will take up the issue when they return to Harrisburg in the new year. Millions of dollars in federal highway construction funding are at risk.

"We absolutely will pass it , with that much construction money on the line," said state Rep. Joseph Petrarca, a member of the House Transportation Committee.

The Vandergrift Democrat estimates as much as $35 million in federal construction money could be at risk in Pennsylvania.

"That's federal construction money. If we don't pass it, it goes toward safety projects. That's a lot of railroad crossings," he said.

Rep. David Levdansky, a Democrat from Elizabeth, Allegheny County, agreed that the lower limit must be approved in 2003. "It has to go next year," he said. "It's one of the priority items."

Levdansky, also a member of the transportation committee, said the new limit was stripped from the bill "probably because it was one of the things we absolutely didn't have to have in place by Jan.1."

The transportation committee's chairman, Rep. Richard Geist, a Republican from Altoona, could not be reached for comment.

Levdansky said federal highway dollars are important to Pennsylvania, which received more than $1 billion this year.

But the head of an organization that opposes drunken driving said the lower blood-alcohol level is about saving lives.

"Putting the money aside — the highway money — the research shows we could save 500 lives nationally," said Rebecca Shaver, state executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The organization has given Pennsylvania a C in its last two "Rating the States" surveys.

The federal government is offering a carrot to the states — grants to fund 100 percent of eligible road projects. No state match is required. This year, the U.S Department of Transportation offered the states an extra $100 million in grants. That goes up to $110 million in 2003.

According to the National Highway Traffic Administration, 17,448 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes in 2001. In Pennsylvania, 663 of the state's 1,530 traffic fatalities in 2001 were alcohol-related.

Injuries nationwide from traffic crashes cost an estimated $150 billion, including $19 billion in medical and emergency expenses, $42 billion in lost productivity, $52 billion in property damage and $37 billion in other crash-related costs, the highway administration said.

A multi-state study by Boston University's School of Public Health concluded that if all states lowered their blood-alcohol limits to 0.08, alcohol-related deaths would decrease nationwide by 500 to 600 per year, saving about $1.5 billion.

Shaver said the Legislature can act quickly when it wants.

"When they want to get something they like passed — like Sunday (liquor) sales — they can get it done pretty quickly. It's more important to buy booze on Sunday than save lives," she said.

Pat Conley, chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, said Sunday sales will give only a slight boost to an industry still reeling from the Sept. 1, 2001, terrorist attacks on America and the slumping economy.

Lowering the blood-alcohol limit "is another thing that's going to impact" on the industry. "There's no question 0.08 is coming down the pike," he said.

Conley said he hoped the Legislature will be willing to discuss initiatives to help the industry bounce back.

Police and prosecutors want to see the blood-alcohol level drop.

"DUI accidents were down, but they're starting to climb slowly. This is not good," Greensburg police Chief Richard Baric said. "We'd like to see an 0.08."

Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said about 20 percent of the caseload in his office involves driving under the influence cases.

"The two things we see are the majority of those are subsequent offenders and their blood-alcohol levels are well over 0.15," he said.

Peck said lowering the blood-alcohol limit will make a difference. Aggressive enforcement by state and local police and mandatory sentences have made an impact as well.

"Our laws are not as draconian as Sweden. We've failed in educating our children," Peck said.

"I blame parents. What family doesn't have an alcoholic these days• In excess of 200 years in this country, this has been tolerated."

Sweden recently lowered its blood-alcohol level from 0.05 to 0.02. Other countries have stiffened penalties on drunken drivers, such as revoking their drivers' licenses for life.

A study by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University found that younger Americans saw more television commercials for beer than for sneakers, gum or jeans.

State lawmakers did pass — and Gov. Mark Schweiker signed — a measure that lowers the blood-alcohol standard for drivers of school vehicles.

Under the new regulations, drivers of any school vehicle who have a blood-alcohol content of 0.02 percent or higher would be subject to drunk-driving charges. Those convicted of driving a school vehicle while intoxicated would lose their bus driver's license for one year.

Pennsylvania is among a growing number of states lowering their alcohol tolerance levels to help stop drunk driving by school bus drivers.

Among some of the measures being considered nationwide:

  • A New England company is offering an ignition interlock device for school buses. Such devices prevent the vehicle from being driven unless the driver passes a breath-alcohol test via an analyzer installed in the vehicle.

    r Illinois Secretary of State George H. Ryan has proposed mandatory fingerprinting of school bus drivers to ensure children do not wind up on a bus driven by someone with a record of criminal behavior or reckless driving.

    To immediately remove Pennsylvania drivers from school vehicles while court proceedings occur, the measure imposes an automatic 30-day suspension if alcohol or drugs are in a driver's bloodstream.

    The new rules stem from the case of an 8-year-old Pittsburgh girl who was injured earlier this year by a school van operated by a driver who had alcohol in his system.

    The van driver could not be prosecuted because of a double-standard in drunk-driving laws regarding those who transport school children.

    Under previous law, a blood-alcohol content of 0.04 percent or higher for school bus operators triggered a drunk-driving violation. In the Pittsburgh case, the van driver's blood-alcohol content was required to be 0.10 percent.

    The new law will include both school bus and van operators under the more rigorous 0.02 percent standard — subjecting them to a one-year license suspension and other penalties.

    Some lawmakers such as Sen. Jay Costa Jr., a Forest Hills Democrat, would have preferred a zero-tolerance standard but agreed to the 0.02 limit to account for very small traces of alcohol found in products such as cough syrup.

    According to the Pennsylvania School Bus Association, 25,823 school buses transported more than 1.5 million students nearly 347 million miles in the 1999-2000 school year. There were 604 school bus accidents involving injuries during that period. There were no fatalities.

    BLOOD ALCOHOL LEVELS

    0.04 —most people begin to feel relaxed.

    0.05 —chances of a motor vehicle accident are twice as likely as when sober.

    0.06 —judgment is somewhat impaired; rational decision making is affected.

    0.08 —muscle coordination and driving skills are impaired.

    0.10 —legal limit for driving while impaired; judgment, motor control and reaction time continue to deteriorate; chances of a vehicle accident are 8 times more likely as when sober.

    0.15 —chances of a motor vehicle accident are 25 times as likely as when sober.

    0.30 —loss of consciousness may occur.

    DUI FACTS

    Alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes kill someone every 32 minutes and injure someone every two minutes.

    Approximately 1.5 million drivers were arrested in 2000 for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics.

    Male drivers involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes are almost twice as likely as female drivers to be intoxicated with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.10 percent or greater.

    Adult drivers ages 35 and older who have been arrested for impaired driving are 11 to 12 times more likely than those who have never been arrested to die eventually in crashes involving alcohol.

    Nearly three-quarters of drivers convicted of driving while impaired are either frequent heavy drinkers or alcoholics.

    Sources: Michigan State University Olin Health Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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