Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Lower threshold for DUI in effect


Police don't expect a big surge in arrests

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Starting today, if you're behind the wheel in Ohio with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or higher, you're legally drunk.

The new DUI law, prompted by a threat of reduced federal highway dollars, lowers the legal alcohol limit from 0.10, just as 40 other states already have. Studies have shown that the lower threshold contributes to a reduction in alcohol-related fatalities.

But police officers say drivers shouldn't expect a big spike in arrests, more likely just increased convictions in court. The new policy doesn't change the triggers officers still have to look for - things like reckless driving and slurred speech.

[dui] "And by that time, we've already made the determination that we think you're impaired,'' said Officer Steve Edwards, of the Cincinnati Police Department's traffic section. He said of the hundreds of suspected drunken drivers stopped in the city every year, only "a fairly minimal amount'' test under 0.10.

"I don't perceive this as making a big change for us,'' he said.

Of the 52 fatal or serious-injury accidents in Cincinnati so far this year, police have confirmed that alcohol was a factor in 15 of them. Evidence is pending in 10 others.

An average 170-pound man must have more than four drinks in one hour on an empty stomach to reach the 0.08 level, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's more consumption than what would be commonly accepted as social drinking, according to the official position of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Studies show the lowered limit does make a difference in the number of deadly crashes, a statistic back on the rise after gradual declines in the 1980s and 1990s. Last year's 17,970 deaths were the most alcohol-related fatalities in the nation since 1992.

In California, researchers have documented a 12 percent drop in alcohol-related fatal crashes since the 0.08 limit began in 1990. A U.S. Department of Transportation study in September 2000 showed that Illinois' lowered limit, adopted in 1997, resulted in 13.7 percent fewer drivers involved in fatal crashes.

It also changes things in court, said Ken Easterling, chief district court prosecutor in Kenton County. Kentucky lowered its limit in October 2000 to 0.08, becoming the 18th state at the time to do so.

He said he is seeing more plea deals

"We were losing these cases in court, although it was totally evident that these folks were impaired,'' said Jeremy Adams, a Kenton County sheriff's deputy. "Now, it's a lot easier to take these people off the road."

The lowered limit applies to boaters too. State watercraft officers had a record year in 2002, citing 100 people for boating while drunk. Alcohol was a contributing factor in eight fatal boating accidents that year, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

"Whatever applies for the roads, applies for the waters," said Senior Chief Petty Officer James Bordell, stationed off Marblehead Island in Lake Erie. "You may not think you've had much to drink, but you'd be surprised at how the sun and waves can intensify the effects of alcohol."

Deputy Adams also has been a victim in a drunken-driving accident. He and his pregnant wife were hit last year by a man who was later convicted of having a blood-alcohol level over the legal limit.

"So I can tell you what it's like from the victim's side too,'' he said. "It's important that we take these people off the road.''

---

Jordan Gentile of the Enquirer Columbus Bureau contributed to this report. Email jprendergast@enquirer.com




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