- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2000

It happens to all of us each year about this time. We get that holiday package in the mail from Aunt Edna and we cringe. What will it be this year? The musical tie, the reindeer sweater or worse yet, the dreaded holiday fruitcake. Whatever it is, we all know two things. One, we don't really want it; two, we can't send it back.

Well this year, Congress gave the states an early Christmas fruitcake a punitive federal mandate establishing a national .08 blood alcohol concentration standard. And while Congress' intentions much like Aunt Edna's were good, most states don't want this federal mandate.

Nearly everyone knows someone killed or maimed by a drunk driver. And state legislatures have been on point over the past 15 years in the battle against drunk driving. Increased educational activities, stiffer penalties, sobriety checkpoints, and other enforcement and prevention techniques have all helped reduce alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Since 1987, such traffic deaths have dropped 32 percent. In 1999, the United States experienced the lowest number of alcohol-related traffic deaths ever recorded. These successes are almost entirely the result of state-based actions.

But in recent years, while drunk-driving fatalities continue to drop, there has been a slowdown in the overall rate of reduction. This can be chalked up to the Law of Diminishing Returns. In short, we've reached a point where greater efforts to reduce drunk driving yield fewer benefits. No matter how many laws are created and enforced drunk-driving fatalities will never be completely eradicated.

One response to this so-called slowdown is a focus on lowering a driver's blood-alcohol level the concentration level of alcohol in one's blood stream used to determine if someone is legally intoxicated. Proponents of this measure want the national standard of .10 percent lowered to .08 percent. It's claimed this will save an additional 500 to 600 lives a year.

At the state level, legislatures began enacting in 1983 their own provisions to lower the legal levels to .08 percent. As of June, 2000, 19 states, plus the District of Columbia, have adopted .08 percent levels. Congress and the executive branch also proved very receptive to the .08 message. After many debates from both sides of the legislative aisle, the 1998 transportation appropriations bill included incentives instead of penalties encouraging states to adopt a higher standard.

Nevertheless, proponents of the lower levels grew frustrated over their perceived lack of total success at the state level. They proved unwilling to give incentives the necessary time to entice states to act. Doing an end run to rush the pace, proponents lobbied Congress to scrap incentives and to replace them with a rigid and punitive federal law forcing states to adopt the .08 standard. After all, in an election year, what congressman wants to be on record voting against an anti-drunk-driving measure?

In October, Congress approved an amendment to the 2001 transportation appropriations bill. This created a punitive federal mandate requiring all states by 2004 to enact laws lowering blood-alcohol levels. The penalty for noncompliance is a loss of millions of dollars in federal highway funding.

This should outrage state legislators and citizens alike. The federal government's heavy-handed approach usurps the ability of states to determine which course of action best fits its individual needs. It also threatens to withhold taxpayer dollars that the federal government initially collected and rightfully belong to the citizens of each state. These critical funds help states build safer roads and bridges that reduce highway deaths across the board.

Ultimately, state and local authorities handle more than 95 percent of the enforcement activity in the fight against drunk driving. Most states are already implementing successful alternatives to lowering the blood-level standard to .08, like administrative license revocations, mandatory minimum sentences and targeting hard core and repeat offenders.

So maybe the "Era of Big Government" really isn't over. In the new year, state legislatures ought to vociferously reject this punitive federal mandate. Marking this unwanted gift "return to sender" might just send Congress the right message.

Andrew LeFevre is director of the Criminal Justice Task Force for the American Legislative Exchange Council.

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