Pilot Guest Editorial

Tuesday, October 8, 2002

Lower the limit on drunk driving

In 1980, the year Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was founded, over 29,000 Americans died in accidents resulting from drunk drivers. In 2001, 17,448 people died in drunk driving crashes. America has made considerable progress over the last 22 years, but we can do even more to prevent drunk-driving deaths.

Iowa needs to lower the legal blood alcohol concentration level for drivers from .10 to .08. A driver with .08 BAC is 16 times more likely to be involved in a fatal car crash than someone who has no alcohol in their system. In Iowa, from 1995 to 2000, 50 people died in accidents caused by drivers whose BAC was between .08 and .10 - drivers who were officially below the legal limit, but still too drunk to drive.

Twenty-five of the drivers in those fatal crashes - 62 percent - were 25 years old or younger, and 12 drivers were under 21 years of age. Studies have shown that younger drivers are at a higher risk to be involved in an alcohol-related car crash. This age group also makes up a high percentage of fatal accidents at .08 BAC.

Changing the legal limit to .08 BAC would get more of these high-risk young drivers off the road, and would save lives. A recent study by the Pacific Research Institute indicates that if Iowa would adopt .08 BAC as the legal limit for drunk driving, 10-16 lives would be saved every year.

In 1999, Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, a law that established .08 as the nationwide standard BAC limit. All states were asked to change their laws to comply with the new national standard, and Congress set aside federal funds to use as an incentive for the states to make the change to .08 BAC.

Governor Vilsack and I have urged the Legislature to pass the .08 BAC limit every year, but they have not responded. Last year, the Iowa Senate gave overwhelming support to the .08 limit, passing the bill by a vote of 47-1.

Unfortunately, once again the Iowa House failed to pass the bill.

Because of the Legislature's inaction, Iowa's local and state law enforcement agencies missed out on $6 million in federal funds over the past three years. These dollars could have gone a long way in the effort to keep our roads safe.

If Iowa does not comply with the .08 BAC limit by October of 2003, we will face federal penalties that will cost us even more money in the future. Iowa will lose $4.7 million in federal transportation funds in October 2003, and could lose as much as $18.7 million in October 2007 if we continue to postpone adoption of the .08 standard.

The time is now to take a sensible step to save lives by making .08 the legal limit for drunk driving in Iowa. Iowa's law enforcement community, the Iowa County Attorneys Association, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving all support the .08 BAC limit.

Some opponents of the .08 BAC limit have claimed that .08 is too small a blood-alcohol-concentration to greatly impair a driver. This is a false claim. In order to reach .08 BAC, a 170-pound male would need to consume 4-5 drinks in the first hour, on an empty stomach. For a 130-pound female, 3-4 drinks in the first hour on an empty stomach would be needed to reach the .08 limit.

This level of alcohol consumption - 4-5 drinks in the first hour for men, 3-4 drinks in the first hour for women - qualifies as "binge drinking."

Someone who has drunk enough alcohol to reach .08 BAC should not be behind the wheel of a car.

Iowa needs the .08 BAC limit, and we need it now. It's a sensible step to save lives. Let's stand behind our state and local law enforcement officials by giving them the best tools they need to keep Iowa's roads and highways safe.

Lt. Governor Sally Pederson writes a regular guest opinion column on Iowa issues for Pilot-Tribune readers.