Lowering drunk driving limit could face long legislative battle

Federal legislators want to lower the drunk driving limit to .05 percent.
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There's a growing debate across the nation over this small number - .05 percent.

The National Transportation Safety Board says Indiana and the 49 other states together can save up to a thousand lives a year by lowering their blood-alcohol content standard to .05 percent.

Changes aren't likely to come easily or soon. The last time Indiana lowered the threshold for drunk driving, the legislative battle lasted more than a decade.

During the lunch hour on the streets of downtown Indianapolis, even occasional, casual drinkers are worried. Jon DiGregory was having a "dry" business lunch. DiGregory insists he's always careful, but concerned by the possibility of a more stringent drunk driving law.

"For me it was as relevant as changing speed limits on the highway. It's something I have to think about even more," he said.

However adults having a drink or two with a meal shouldn't worry about the law changing any time soon.

"Going to .05, it's going to be tougher than nails to do that," said Indiana Senator Tom Wyss (R-Fort Wayne).

Wyss speaks from experience. For 11 years, he fought to lower the drunk driving standard from a blood alcohol content of .10 to the current .08 percent.

"At the same time, I had people throwing stones at me," he remembered with a smile.

Much of the opposition inside the statehouse came from the restaurant and liquor industries, concerned then and now, says John Livengood, president of the Indiana Restaurant & Lodging Association, "about what effect this would have on people having a drink with dinner, whether it would harm their business unnecessarily. The concern was the emphasis was placed on the wrong people, that it was on the social drinker rather than the people that were really out there causing problems."

Even when Washington demanded tougher drunk driving laws, Indiana said no. Indiana lawmakers are stubbornly and fiercely independent. They don't like the federal government telling Hoosiers what they should and shouldn't do. In 2001, lawmakers approved the current law only after the Federal government threatened to withhold tens of millions of dollars in highway construction funds.

The number of Hoosiers killed and seriously injured in alcohol related crashes is increasing. Wyss supports lowering the drunk driving threshold again.

"Life is too valuable to go and have it taken away by someone who is socially irresponsible. When you drink and drive, you are socially irresponsible," he insisted.

The senator explained that in the late 1990s experts knew everyone with a BAC of .08 was impaired with and most people were impaired with a lower BAC of .05 percent.

"The issue isn't about drinking," Wyss insisted, "it's about drinking and driving."

Although more than a decade has passed, many lawmakers remain resistant to federal mandates. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is demanding changes and tougher penalties in Indiana's so-called "open container law." The law is intended to prevent drivers from drinking while behind the wheel. Lawmakers refused to make the changes and, as a result, NHTSA is withholding $40 million in federal highway construction funds.