Nevada's lower DUI standard faces tough road ahead

LAS VEGAS - Nevada stands to lose more than millions in federal highway funds if a congressional push to impose a 0.08 percent nationwide drunken driving blood-alcohol standard by 2007 is successful.

''In other cities and states, food and beverage sales have plummeted when the (0.08 percent) law passed,'' said Van Heffner, president of the Nevada Restaurant Association and the Nevada Hotel and Motel Association.

Nevada's drunken driving blood-alcohol standard is 0.10. If the law were to pass and the state Legislature and the governor don't agree to lower that level to 0.08 percent, federal transportation dollars could be reduced by 2 percent a year beginning in 2004.

The 0.08 nationwide drunken driving standard was included in a transportation spending bill approved by a House-Senate conference committee Tuesday.

The same spending bill, if approved by the full House and Senate and signed by President Clinton, would give Nevada $293 million for transportation projects.

Heffner said he is concerned about the legislation targeting the tourism industry and the effect it will have on Nevada jobs and families. At 40 percent, Nevada has the highest percentage of its work force employed in the tourism industry in the nation, Heffner said.

While no one supports drunken driving, Heffner said lowering the blood-alcohol standard targets social drinkers which is bad for business.

''It's going to affect sales in outlying restaurants,'' he said. ''It will affect people who are being responsible. For example, a husband and wife may choose not to celebrate with a bottle of wine with dinner and instead celebrate some other way.''

Nevada Assemblyman Mark Manendo, however, argues that it has been proved that the 0.08 standard saves lives in states where it has been implemented. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have 0.08 laws, and 31 have 0.10 as their standard.

''I don't think 0.08 is penalizing social drinkers,'' he said. ''I think it's a life-saving issue.''

At 0.10 a person has a 300 percent chance of being involved in a fatal crash, statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show. At 0.08, or one drink less, the chances are reduced to 160 percent.

Some, like Manendo, say lowering Nevada's blood-alcohol content standard might be the answer for a state in which casinos have 24-hour taps and freely handout complimentary cocktails.

But Nevada already has the strongest DUI laws on the book in the nation, according to Hefner, whose organizations represent 170 hotel-casinos and 700 restaurants.

''We are already penalizing the people that need to be targeted,'' he said. ''Now there's going to be a new benchmark and they are holding states hostage with transportation funds.''

That's where proponents of tougher drunken driving standards and their opponents agree: drunken driving standards should be a state decision.

''It really concerns me when the federal government chooses to usurp our state's rights and withhold transportation funds,'' Heffner said. ''I'm very concerned when the federal government decides to tell states what to do.''

Manendo also said the drunken driving standard should be a state issue, and not a federal mandate.

''I would like to see them give incentives rather than punishment,'' he said.

So would U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, a member of the conference committee, who said he would rather give incentives than sanctions.

''I think Nevada should be responsible enough to pass a life-saving measure. We don't need the federal government telling us what to do.''

Ironically, a federal mandate could be the impetus that Manendo, a Las Vegas Democrat, needs to get his bill calling for the reduction to 0.08 passed this spring session. Similar efforts to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit have failed the past three legislative sessions.

''Last session the bill we put together passed out of the Assembly Judiciary Committee on a 13-1 vote,'' he said. ''We've never had that high of a vote. That means 13 legislators were saying this is a good idea.''

The measure, however, never made its way out of the Ways and Means committee because of the fiscal impact more arrests and incarcerations of drunken drivers would have on the state's budget, Manendo said.

Gambling industry lobbyists have mixed reviews on what, if any, effect a lower drunken driving standard would have on the industry.

''If you look at the Strip properties, most people take cabs or walk,'' said Frank Schreck, a Las Vegas gaming attorney and lobbyist.

Bill Thompson, a gambling industry expert and professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said he hopes a new law would have a ''chilling effect'' on drunken drivers.

''We have tourists that imbibe but they aren't driving around, they are in their hotels,'' he said. ''Being a little drunk is fine, it makes them gamble more. But we don't need people drinking and driving.''

Like Schreck, Thompson doesn't believe a reduction in the blood-alcohol limit would hurt the Strip.

''And anything that makes Las Vegas safer helps tourism,'' he said. ''The safety of the tourists should be the No. 1 priority.''


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment