Tuesday, July 1, 2003

DUI standards: Federal mandates

States had little say

More than 800 Ohio law-enforcement agencies are renewing efforts to get tough on drunken drivers this Fourth of July holiday week. They're doing it through proven means such as checkpoints, an increased police presence and more public-safety announcements.

And today, thanks to a federal mandate, they have another DUI enforcement tool. Ohio's new 0.08 percent legal limit for blood-alcohol content is a two-hundredths of a percent reduction from the old 0.10 standard. Ohio joins 36 other states (including Kentucky and Indiana) at the more stringent level.

This is a good law, but its flaw is in the way it was carried out. The federal government threatened to hold $122 million in highway funding from Ohio over the next four years if state lawmakers didn't support the measure.

Numerous studies have indicated that a driver is impaired at levels lower than those commonly prosecuted. But the federal government, through its unfunded mandate to the states, is simplifying an issue that is frequently more complicated.

The blood-alcohol content readings are not as critical to a drunken driving arrest as many people think, said Lt. Rick Fambro of the Ohio Highway Patrol Columbus headquarters. An officer's subjective observation during a traffic stop is usually the deciding factor in charging a person with drunken driving, he said.

It's like that because "impairment" is a relative term. Unless drivers are extremely inebriated (and they're not, if they're affected by the new standards), charging them depends on a variety of factors evaluated by trained police officers. A federal demand to lower Ohio's limit takes that subjectivity out of the equation.

Ohio may have decided on its own to lower the legal limit for drunk driving. But it should have happened with the advice of police and local governments, not because of a multimillion-dollar threat from Washington.

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