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Published: Sunday, 3/23/2003

Drunk at .08

When Richard Finan stepped down from his post as president of the Ohio Senate at the end of 2002, the final remaining legislative obstacle was removed to a tougher drunken-driving standard in this state.

Suddenly, changing the maximum legal blood-alcohol level from 0.10 to 0.08 is no longer controversial among lawmakers, and the General Assembly finally seems poised to adopt it as part of the state transportation budget.

Year after year, Mr. Finan, a Cincinnati Republican, blocked a 0.08 limit, mainly because he felt the federal government was blackmailing the states by cutting highway funds to those that failed to enact the lower level.

While we sympathized with that argument to some extent, we have long held that it was far outweighed by the safety benefits of a tougher standard.

Under current law, a motorist is considered drunk at 0.10, but experts know that significant driving impairment begins at a lower level, diminishing the basic driving skills - steering, braking, response time, lane changing, and judgment.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a 170-pound man would have to consume more than four drinks in one hour on an empty stomach to reach 0.08. For a 137-pound woman, it's three drinks. Most reasonable people would certainly say that such consumption goes beyond “social drinking.”

For the statistically minded, NHTSA says that more than 20 percent of alcohol-related traffic deaths involve blood-alcohol limits below 0.10.

By adopting the more stringent standard, Ohio will avoid losing 2 percent of its federal highway funds in 2004, a penalty enacted by Congress in 1998. Nationally, 35 states and the District of Columbia have enacted 0.08. Like Ohio, Michigan is considering legislation.

Due in part to tougher laws and better enforcement, traffic fatalities caused by drunks dropped by 25 percent during the 1990s nationwide, but increased slightly in 2001, when 17,448 died. These were preventable deaths, and 0.08 should help to start the trend downward once again.

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