Arrests for drunken driving in Missouri rising due to 0.08 law

Monday, January 19, 2004

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A law that lowered the allowable blood alcohol content to 0.08 percent contributed to a 14 percent increase in drunken driving arrests in Missouri in 2002, according to state records.

State records indicate that two-thirds of the increase in arrests was caused by changing the legal blood-alcohol content from 0.08 to 0.10 percent.

Despite the increase in arrests, alcohol-related fatalities rose in Missouri the year after 0.08 became law, matching a pattern in about half the states that passed similar legislation.

"The 0.08 law was never going to be the answer to all the problems of drunk driving," said Michael Boland, chairman of the Missouri chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "It was only going to be part of the solution."

Nationally in 2002, 17,410 people died in alcohol-related crashes, the highest number since 1996.

"We are disappointed because for years we were making steady progress, and for the past five years or so we have been struggling," said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Tyson said no one should conclude that 0.08 laws had been ineffective. Fatalities may have been higher if the lower blood alcohol laws were not in place, he said.

Forty-five states have passed 0.08 laws, most of them in the past three years. The other five states are under pressure to do so this year because federal road construction funding is partly withheld from states that don't pass 0.08.

Missouri's 0.08 law took effect on Sept. 28, 2001.

In the two years that ended last June 30, 5,682 drivers were arrested in Missouri with a blood alcohol content between 0.08 and 0.10. In all but the first three months of that period, the lower blood alcohol was the law.

Wendy Hamilton, national president of MADD, said arresting people at 0.08 helped reduce the number of repeat offenders.

"It gets them into the system, and once they get that first arrest and say, 'This isn't really a good idea,' that's a good thing," Hamilton said. "We want them to get the message that 0.08 is unsafe and it's illegal."

Only Minnesota, Colorado, Delaware, New Jersey and West Virginia do not have a 0.08 law. Legislation is pending in all of those states to pass the law this year, MADD said.

In Missouri, 292 people died in alcohol-related accidents in 2002. That was up from 266 in 2001 and an average of 258 deaths over the previous 10 years, according to highway patrol figures.

Several states saw an increase in fatalities the year after passing 0.08, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Of the 25 states that had 0.08 in place for the first time in 2002 or earlier, 12 states showed an increase for the first year compared with the average of the prior two years. Twelve states showed a decline, and one showed no change, according to a review of the data by The Kansas City Star.

Hamilton said a state's early experience with 0.08 was not significant.

"It will take several years of looking at the states, once all the laws have gone into effect," Hamilton said.

Kansas has shown little change in alcohol-related fatalities since it passed 0.08 in 1993.

There were 96 such deaths in Kansas in 1994, the first full year under 0.08. That was down from 98 in 1992, the last full year of 0.10. Fatalities averaged 95 from 1994 to 2001 but jumped to 131 in 2002, when police broadened criteria for what they considered an alcohol-related fatality.

"The numbers have stayed flat, but the number of miles driven per year has gone up," said David Marshall, research analyst with the Kansas Department of Transportation. "There are a lot more drivers out there, and they are putting a lot more miles on the road."

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studies showed the alcohol-related fatality rate in Kansas during the first four years of 0.08 was down by about one-fifth compared with the four years before the law was in place. But it has fluctuated since then.

The fatality rate in Missouri was the same in 2002 as in the two prior years.

Nationally, the alcohol-related fatality rate has remained steady in the past five years, despite more states passing the 0.08 law, safety administration data show.

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