WASHINGTON - Congressional negotiators have agreed to a tough national standard for drunken driving with penalties for states that don't abide. President Clinton called it a ''commonsense nationwide limit'' that will save an estimated 500 lives a year and prevent thousands of injuries.
Under the measure, states would be required to adopt a 0.08 blood alcohol content standard as the legal level for drunken driving by 2004. Those that don't comply would stand to lose millions of dollars in federal highway funds.
''Congress has realized that what happened to me and what has happened to others is wrong,'' said Millie Webb, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Webb lost a nephew and a daughter, and she, her husband and her then-unborn baby were severely injured, in a crash with a driver with a 0.08 blood alcohol content.
Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia have 0.08 laws, and in Massachusetts a level of 0.08 is considered evidence but not proof of drunkenness. Thirty-one states define drunken driving as 0.10 BAC.
The nationwide drunken driving standard was included in a transportation spending bill approved Tuesday by a House-Senate conference committee. It is expected to reach Clinton's desk in a matter of days, and the president, a strong supporter of the measure, is sure to sign it into law. Transportation Department Secretary Rodney Slater said that as late as Monday night the president was calling lawmakers to nail down their support.
''With this measure we can save more than 500 families annually the experience of having to deal with the loss of a loved one,'' Slater said.
In 1998, 15,935 traffic deaths were attributed to drunken driving, or 38.4 percent of the 41,471 deaths overall. Both numbers were down slightly from the year before.
Under the final compromise, states that don't implement 0.08 BAC by 2004 would lose 2 percent of their highway money, with the penalty increasing to 8 percent by 2007. States that adopt the standard by 2007 would be reimbursed for any lost money.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., a chief proponent of the legislation, said even a 2 percent loss would be considerable, noting that his state gets $750 million a year in federal highway money.
MADD contends that a driver with 0.08 BAC is 11 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than a sober driver. It quotes National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studies that show a 170-pound man could consume four drinks on an empty stomach in an hour, or a 137-pound woman three drinks, before reaching 0.08.
Lautenberg and House sponsors including Reps. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Frank Wolf, R-Va., introduced the legislation three years ago. It ran into solid resistance from lawmakers who said it infringed on states' rights and a strong lobbying effort from beverage and restaurant associations.
John Doyle of the American Beverage Institute said the national standard would ''have no impact whatsoever'' because the average BAC for drunks involved in fatal crashes is 0.17. Doyle also cites NHTSA figures in saying that a 120-pound woman would reach the new legal inebriation level by drinking only two six-ounce glasses of wine over two hours. ''It demonstrates we are not talking about the product abuser,'' he said.
Several lawmakers made last-ditch efforts to sidetrack the 0.08 measure but were defeated by the House-Senate conference. Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., unsuccessfully proposed that the federal government should double grants to states for anti-drunken driving programs rather than penalize them.
Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., also contended it was wrong to take money away from states that, while they might not have a 0.08 standard, impose other strong anti-drinking measures such as bans on driving with open containers of alcohol or mandatory BAC testing after accidents.
''It's a gross injustice to many states that have far tougher drunk driving laws,'' he said.
The transportation spending bill is H.R. 4475.
On the Net: MADD: http://www.madd.org/
American Beverage Institute: http://www.abionline.org/
State drunken driving laws: http://www.mrtraffic.com/dui.htm
Bill text is available on http://thomas.loc.gov