Alcohol level mandate could hurt road funding

Millions of transportation dollars could be lost in the next several years if states refuse to comply with federal pressure to strengthen drunken-driving laws by lowering the blood alcohol level to .08, the national standard for drunk driving.

The plan, announced by federal officials, lays out a four-year decrease in highways grants. If states resist compliance with the federal mandate this year, 2 percent of grant money will be cut, with 4 percent in 2004, 6 percent in 2006 and 8 percent reductions in 2007.

There are currently 14 states that retain a legal alcohol level of .10. If Iowa does not pass the new level requirement, the state will lose $47 million in transportation federal money through 2007. Nevada has refused to pass the new limit, rejecting it in six successive sessions. It is expected to pass it sometime this year. Many states are expected to give in to the pressure because the possibility of losing money for roads and bridges could be too much. New York Gov. George Pataki signed a law requiring the .08 alcohol level this month.

According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, any reduction in transportation would affect highway safety, traffic congestion, road maintenance and most importantly, jobs.

Matt Jeanneret, public relations director for ARTBA, said that the alcohol level mandate is not a construction issue, but it does have an impact.

“The federal highway program is being used wrongly as a tool for states’ compliance, which is not the approach to take,” Jeanneret said. “The federal government allocates approximately $31.8 billion a year for transportation, and it should be used for that purpose.”

Jeanneret said ARTBA is supportive of legislation to fight drunk driving, but this mandate will hurt state transportation tremendously, if not complied with.

“We’re not going to meddle in states’ affairs,” Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told USA Today. “But one thing is very clear: Whether a state passes it, a person with a blood alcohol of .08 or greater is impaired and shouldn’t be behind the wheel.”

According to the traffic safety administration, 41 percent of all traffic deaths (17,448) in 2001 involved alcohol. The government expects the new .08 alcohol level would save about 500 lives a year if it were passed by every state.

Some states question whether lowering the limit will really save lives.

“Why is that the magic number?” Senate Majority Leader Stewart Iverson asked USA Today. “The bulk of the people it’s going to affect are more the social drinkers, not the hard-core drunks.”

Since the .08 alcohol content level was made the national standard in 2000, 19 states have lowered the limit.