Back in the 1970s and '80s, Minnesota, with its strong DWI laws, was a leader in the fight against drunk driving. In 1992, when I first introduced legislation to change the legal limit for blood alcohol from .10% down to .08%, only five states had adopted a ".08 law".
Now, a decade later, 45 states and the District of Columbia have .08 laws. Unfortunately, Minnesota is still not one of them. We are one of the last five states without this important safety measure!
Why are we so far behind? Clearly, because the liquor lobby has strong clout at the Minnesota capitol. They have succeeded in defeating this proposal year after year, using misinformation and any means necessary. The alcohol lobby has fought .08 in spite of the following points:
"Virtually all drivers are substantially impaired at .08," according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). They state that "although outward appearances vary," even experienced drivers are impaired in some critical driving tasks such as braking, steering, lane changing, judgment, and divided attention at .08.
Between 10 and 18 lives would be saved every year by a .08 law in Minnesota, based on NHTSA estimates from the most comprehensive study of such laws.
A .08 law still allows motorists to consume twice the amount of alcohol permitted (.04%) for truck drivers under federal law.
A driver at .08 is five times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than a sober driver!
When .08 legislation was presented in the Senate Crime Prevention Committee, lobbyists from the alcohol industry testified that drivers with .08 blood alcohol are not a serious problem or merely "social drinkers" and that the state should focus on "serious drunk drivers."
What seems most callous and insensitive about the industry testimony dismissing the problem of drivers at .08, was that it came on the heels of testimony from a woman who's husband was killed while taking his eleven-year-old son to the store. The driver who hit them head-on was tested between .08 and the current limit of .10. The industry's insensitive comments also came despite testimony from a woman who lost both her parents to a driver between .08 and .10.
It may be insignificant to the alcohol lobby, but to children losing their parents, or people losing their spouses to fatal DWI crashes, nothing could be more serious.
The alcohol lobby is a powerful presence at the capitol in St. Paul, just as it is in other state capitols, and in Washington DC. They make generous campaign contributions and have well-funded lobbying efforts. Joseph Califano, the former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, wrote several years ago that the liquor lobby's "bags of campaign money helped tilt the scales" against .08 in Congress.
But even the US Congress eventually defeated the alcohol lobby on .08, passing legislation that requires states to adopt .08 or lose federal highway funding. This year, Minnesota's failure to pass .08 is not only costing us lives and making our roads less safe -- it is also costing us over $6 million in lost federal highway funding, and it will cost double that amount next year.
239 Minnesotans were killed by drunk drivers in 2002-far more than the 115 Minnesota homicide victims. DWI is Minnesota's deadliest crime. Passing the .08 law will not eliminate the problem, but it would be an important step in making our roads safer.
According to NHTSA, "a .08 law serves as a general deterrent to drinking and driving, sends a message that the state is getting tougher on impaired driving, and makes people think twice about getting behind the wheel after they've had too much to drink." They estimate that .08 laws reduce the number of adult drivers involved in fatal accidents by 8%.
Ten years ago, .08 didn't stand a chance against the alcohol lobby. But now, we have support from the public, from law enforcement, and from medical professionals. If only to avoid the loss of federal funding, now is the time to pass the .08 DWI law.
But more than the money, .08 will save the lives of Minnesota fathers and mothers, daughters and sons. That makes .08 a fight worth fighting.