Minnesota tightens drunken driving limit

Monday, August 1, 2005

TRIMONT, Minn. -- It was only a broken headlight on a beat-up pickup truck, but it led Martin County Deputy Matthew Owens to turn around and stop it for a check. The pickup's driver reeked of alcohol and a test showed he had a 0.12 percent blood-alcohol level, enough for a drunken driving offense -- even on one of the last nights in the last state in the country to have a 0.10 percent minimum for driving while intoxicated. Minnesota's DWI limit drops to 0.08 percent today, giving the nation a uniform standard. Backers started pushing for the lower limit in the 1980s but ran into opposition from the liquor industry. Also balking were people who objected to the federal threat to dock highway funds for states that did not adopt the uniform standard of 0.08 percent, first approved 22 years ago by Utah.

The National Commission Against Drunk Driving estimates a 180-pound man's blood-alcohol level will reach 0.08 percent after he drinks four 12-ounce beers or four 1.25-ounce drinks of 80-proof liquor in an hour on an empty stomach. For a woman, it could take just three drinks.

The lower limit reduces drunken driving deaths on average by 5 to 8 percent, according to an analysis by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Public safety officials say 70 fewer Minnesotans might have died in drunken driving crashes over the last five years if the 0.08 percent standard had been enacted sooner.

State Patrol Chief Mark Dunaski expects the effect of 0.08 percent to be subtle.

Right now, most drunken drivers are caught with blood-alcohol levels between 0.12 percent and 0.15 percent. Dunaski predicts the lower limit will push down the average as people become more cautious about driving after a few drinks.

"The impact is not so much that we're going to arrest more people," Dunaski said. "The true impact of 0.08 is the perception and the understanding by people that they're going to have to make a conscious effort to either consume less, or not drink and drive."

On the Net:

Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety: http://www.dps.state.mn.us/ots/

National Commission against Drunk Driving: http://www.3dmonth.org/

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