By Shelley Davis
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Ohioans who drink a few glasses of wine or beer with dinner might want to think twice about getting behind the wheel if a new bill passes the General Assembly.
The measure would lower the state's blood-alcohol concentration limit from 0.10 to 0.08, making it easier to convict people for drunken driving.
Ohio would become the 36th state to bow to national pressure to approve the lower limit. The Buckeye State has so far resisted a two-year-old federal law requiring all states to adopt the 0.08 standard by October or risk losing millions in transportation dollars.
Some state lawmakers argue the bill is needed because drinking even three beers in two hours and then trying to drive is unsafe. Rep. John Hagan, R-Alliance, sponsor of the bill, said he hopes publicity surrounding the legislation will push people to pay more attention to how much they drink before they drive.
"The mere mass of a vehicle makes it dangerous, so it's good to have our wits about us when driving," Hagan said.
In addition to cracking down on social drinkers, Hagan said the federal deadline provides a more pressing reason to pass this bill quickly.
If Ohio doesn't make it tougher to drink and drive by Oct. 1, the federal government will withhold 2 percent of the state's federal highway construction funds. That could cost as much as $65 million - a lot to lose at a time when lawmakers are scrambling to find money to plug a $4 billion budget deficit.
"This makes it a lot more attractive to some members that might not necessarily care about lowering blood alcohol levels," Hagan said.
He said the dollar savings are just a bonus. "If we can save just one life, it's well worthwhile to the people who care about that person to save that life," he said.
Not everyone views the new legislation as necessary. Patrick Carroll, president of the Southwest Ohio Beverage Association, said it would unfairly punish responsible drinkers.
"It all depends on how big you are, but for the average person, after three drinks, you'll be legally drunk (under the new bill)," Carroll said.
Though similar legislation has been proposed every year since 1995, sponsors say they believe the bill has a fighting chance this time around.
A major reason it didn't pass last session, Hagan said, was former Ohio Senate President Richard Finan's strong opposition to the 0.08 percent limit.
Lew Hollinger, chairman of Mothers Against Drunk Driving for Ohio, said his organization strongly supports lowering the limit. He said 30 people will die next year if the limit is not enacted.
"Thousands of additional people will be injured from drunk driving crises and we feel like we must stop the carnage on our roads and highways," Hollinger said.
The Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio also stands behind the bill, as it does most legislation that cracks down on people who ignore the laws, said spokesman Jay Smith.
"We take drunk driving very seriously. We see many accidents, and many are very near the blood-alcohol legal limit," he said.
But Carroll said he doesn't think the number of accidents would actually decrease. He said statistics show highway deaths have already gone down because of higher awareness of the dangers of drunken driving.
He said legislators are more interested in getting the highway money than saving lives.
Though backers of the legislation tout how many lives it would save, most don't mention conflicting research on whether a 0.08 percent limit, such as those in Kentucky and Indiana, really is effective in cutting back on drunken-driving related deaths.
Kentucky officials, who approved the .08-limit in October 2000, touted a one-year, 26 percent drop in alcohol-related traffic deaths. There were 189 deaths reported from Oct.1, 2000 through Oct. 1, 2001, compared to 257 deaths recorded over the previous 12 months.
Nationally, a study from the Centers for Disease Control in 2001 was the latest of many to conclude that 0.08 blood-alcohol limit laws reduce alcohol-related traffic deaths by an average of 7 percent in states that have enacted them.
But a 1999 study from the U.S. General Accounting Office said these reports might be skewed. In many states, making 0.08 concentrations illegal coincided with stepping up other preventive measures, like tough license revocation laws.
The study said it is difficult to prove which factor led to the decrease in deaths. It concluded a 0.08 law reduces deaths only when combined with other drunken-driving laws, and its effectiveness is based on how well it is publicized and enforced.
Ohio already has some of the toughest license revocation laws on the books, according to MADD. The organization's 2002 report card gave the state a grade of B+ in criminal drunken-driving laws. Ohio automatically suspends driver's licenses for drunken drivers and has the most comprehensive penalties for repeat offenders in the nation, MADD said.
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