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Published: Monday, 9/29/2003

Lower DUI threshold looms in Michigan

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Those inclined to tip a few at their favorite Michigan bars and taverns will have a new number to worry about come 12:01 a.m. tomorrow: 0.08.

Already the law in Ohio and Indiana, 0.08 percent alcohol content in a motorist's bloodstream also will be Michigan's benchmark by which a motorist is considered legally intoxicated and can be charged with drunken driving.

The reduced standard from 0.10 percent puts Michigan in line with a three-year-old federal law requiring states to switch to 0.08 percent by Wednesday or forfeit 2 percent of their federal highway funding. For Michigan, that could have meant losing tens of millions of dollars in federal highway aid.

About 45 states have complied with the federal law thus far, but a few, like Delaware and West Virginia, have thus far delayed or refused action. If they comply by 2007, the withheld money will be reinstated.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a nationwide advocacy group that spearheaded the federal lobbying, reports a 6 to 8 percent decline in alcohol-related traffic deaths in states that have adopted 0.08.

“We would hope that we have the same results that other states have had with 0.08,” said Anne Readett, a spokesman for the Michigan Office of Highway Safety and Planning.

While Michigan law does not allow highway checkpoints for traffic enforcement, Ms. Readett said the state plans to continue its “alcohol saturation patrols” in which police team up in specific areas to pull over traffic violators and check for drunken driving. An extensive public information campaign is scheduled to begin tomorrow, too, she said.

Defense lawyers in Michigan argue - as did those in Ohio before 0.08 percent went into effect in the Buckeye state on July 1 - that the reduced blood-alcohol standard is more likely to impact the social drinker who is not familiar with the rapid effects of alcohol and how much easier it could be to consume their way into a drunken driving charge.

In addition, Michigan's new law removes the previous requirement of a 0.07 blood-alcohol content or greater for a motorist to be charged with impaired driving. Now a charge can be filed based on the observation and testimony of police and there is no specific blood-alcohol level required.

A first-time conviction on either drunken driving or driving while impaired charges in Michigan could result in up to 93 days in jail. But a drunken driving conviction carries a higher fine ($500 versus $300), a longer license suspension (up to six months), and an additional $2,000 civil penalty, collected in annual $1,000 installments,

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a typical 170-pound man would have to consume four drinks in one hour on an empty stomach to reach a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol concentration, while an average 137-pound woman would reach that level after three drinks. One drink is considered to be 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1 ounce of 86-proof distilled spirits.

The rate at which someone becomes impaired by alcohol varies by several factors, including a person's weight, number of drinks consumed, length of time between drinks, and how much eaten before or during drinking.

But three to four drinks in an hour, MADD says, “exceeds what is commonly accepted as social drinking.”

MADD also cites Michigan State Police reports that the average blood-alcohol content for a motorist arrested on a drunken-driving charge in that state is 0.16 percent - well above the current 0.10 limit.

Lt. Kevin Keel, head of the Toledo police traffic section, said that between July 1, when Ohio's 0.08 law went into effect, and Sept. 22, only three people out of 113 charged by city police with driving while under the influence had blood-alcohol concentrations of between 0.08 and 0.10.

Overall, Lieutenant Keel said, drunken-driving arrests in Toledo are down by about a sixth this year. “People who drank that third drink maybe aren't drinking it any more,” he said.

The Ohio State Highway Patrol said this week it did not have comprehensive results showing the number of people arrested since Ohio's lower DUI threshold became law.

Among states neighboring Ohio and Michigan, only Indiana and Kentucky have had the lower limit on the books long enough to show statistical results. Kentucky adopted 0.08 percent in October, 2000, while Indiana lowered its blood-alcohol limit in July, 2001.

Officials in Indiana and Kentucky said that while there was no noticeable change in their numbers of drunken-driving arrests, alcohol related fatalities dropped off significantly after the change.

“We can't say that it's solely due to the reduction from 0.10 to 0.08, because we also did major education and enforcement,” said Lt. Lisa Rudzinski, a spokesman for the Kentucky State Police. “We thought that DUI arrests would increase, but our numbers, with active and aggressive enforcement, stayed the same.”

“Probably some people refrained from drinking after the change, and others consumed less,” said Jerry McCory, director of the Governor's Council on Impaired and Dangerous Driving in Indiana, where the same results occurred.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that 32 percent of American drivers killed in accidents in 2001 had blood-alcohol contents of 0.08 percent or higher.

Many European nations and Canada have recognized the dangers of drinking and driving for years. Blood-alcohol limits in those countries range from 0.08 to zero tolerance.

“People are not drinking and driving like they used to,” Toledo Lieutenant Keel said. “It's just not socially acceptable any more.”



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