CONGRESSWOMAN NITA M. LOWEY
TESTIMONY BEFORE THE SENATE SUBCOMMITTEE
ON TRANSPORTATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE
ISTEA REAUTHORIZATION
MAY 7, 1997

Thank you, Chairman Warner, and members of the Subcommittee for the opportunity to speak to you this morning.

I must say I don't envy your task this year. Your Subcommittee must wrestle with a wide array of difficult issues and competing interests as part of the reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. As this process unfolds, however, I hope one area everyone can agree on is that improving the safety of our nation's roadways must be one of our highest priorities. It is with that goal in mind that I am here this morning to urge the Subcommittee's support of measures to strengthen our nation's drunk driving laws.

We have all heard the statistics. For the first time in a decade, drunk driving fatalities are on the rise. In 1995, the year for which the most recent statistics are available, more than 17,000 Americans were killed in alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

The sad reality is that our drunk driving laws have failed thousands of families across the nation; our criminal justice system has been too lax on drunk drivers for too long.

In fact, impaired driving is the most frequently committed violent crime in America. That's an outrage. A license to drive shouldn't be a license to kill. We must combat these crimes by strengthening drunk driving laws and penalties.

As some of you know, Senator Lautenberg, Senator DeWine and I have joined Mothers Against Drunk Driving, highway safety advocates, law enforcement groups, and drunk driving victims in introducing two important pieces of legislation to strengthen our nation's drunk driving laws. Using the proven method of the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age law and the 1995 Zero Tolerance law for underage drinking and driving, these bills will compel states to lower the legal level of Driving While Intoxicated to a more reasonable level and strengthen penalties for repeat drunk drivers.

Mr. Chairman, more than 3,700 Americans were killed in 1995 by drivers with Blood Alcohol Concentration (or BAC) levels below .10 -- the legal definition of Driving While Intoxicated in 36 states. In recognition of this problem, fourteen states, including Virginia, California, Florida, and Idaho have adopted laws lowering the DWI level to .08, and Illinois is likely to do so soon. .08 laws have also been adopted by a number of other industrialized nations.

Lowering the DWI level to .08 is supported by the American Medical Association, the American Automobile Association, the National Sheriffs Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and our nation's largest insurance companies. The American Medical Association even recommends states adopt a .05 DWI standard.

The reasons these groups recommend that the DWI standard be lowered to .08 are compelling: First, .08 is a level of intoxication at which critical driving skills are impaired for the vast majority of drivers. Second, the risk of a crash increases substantially at .08 and above. In fact, a driver with .08 BAC is 16 times more likely to be in a fatal crash than a driver with no alcohol in his system. Third, Americans overwhelmingly agree that you shouldn't drive after three or four drinks in one hour an empty stomach -- the equivalent of a .08 blood alcohol level.

Last, but certainly not least, .08 laws save lives. A study of the first five states to enact .08 found that those states experienced a 16% reduction in fatal crashes involving drivers with a BAC of .08 or higher. Overall, the study concluded that up to 600 lives would be saved each year nationwide if every state adopted the .08 standard.

This is a not a theoretical study -- these are facts.

The experiences of the first five states to adopt .08 laws also indicate that heavy drinkers are less likely to drink and drive because of the general deterrent effect of .08. In fact, those states experienced a 18% decrease in fatal crashes involving drivers with a BAC of .15 or higher. In addition, lowering the BAC to .08 makes it possible to convict seriously impaired drivers whose BAC levels are now considered marginal because they are at or just over .10

Some will argue that .08 BAC is too low a level of intoxication and that it will target social drinkers who drink in moderation. Let me be very clear: This legislation has nothing to do with social drinking. This is not about having a couple of beers or glasses of wine with dinner after work. It takes a lot of alcohol to reach .08 BAC. According to NHTSA, a 170 lb. man with an average metabolism would reach .08 only after consuming four drinks in one hour on an empty stomach. A 137 lb. woman with an average metabolism would need three drinks in hour to reach that level. Keep in mind, if you have any food in your stomach or you snack while you're drinking, you can drink even more and not reach .08. That's a lot of liquor.

In addition to getting states to lower the legal definition of DWI, we need legislation to establish mandatory minimum penalties to keep convicted drunk drivers off our roads. We must stop slapping drunk drivers on the wrist and start taking their hands off the wheel.

That's why "The Deadly Driver Reduction Act" will require states to mandate a six month revocation for the first DWI conviction, a one year revocation for two alcohol-related convictions, and a permanent license revocation for three alcohol-related offenses.

Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that about one-third of all drivers arrested or convicted of DWI each year are repeat offenders. Drivers with prior DWI convictions are also more likely to be involved in fatal crashes. This second piece of legislation will close the loopholes in state laws that too often allow convicted drunk drivers to get right back behind the wheel.

Mr. Chairman, no piece of legislation alone is going to solve the problem of drunk driving. We know that it is going to take a good deal of public education and a greater commitment on the part of federal, state, and local officials. However, there can be no denying that adopting .08 as the national DWI standard and establishing mandatory minimum penalties will reduce the carnage on our nation's roads. Government has an obligation to act when lives are at stake.