Alcohol Lobby Fights Drunken Driving Bill
By Eric Pianin
The fight pits a coalition of traffic safety groups -- headed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the National Safety Council and Public Citizen, which contend the measure would save hundreds of lives annually -- against lobbyists for beer distributors and restaurant chains such as Hooters, TGI Friday's and Red Lobster that say it would cut into their alcoholic beverage sales without appreciably reducing drunken driving.
The measure in dispute would require all states to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit to 0.08 percent milligrams per deciliter of blood or suffer the loss of as much as 10 percent of their federal highway funds. According to advocates for highway and auto safety, a 170-pound man who consumes five drinks in two hours would show a 0.08 blood alcohol level while a 137-pound woman would reach that level by consuming three drinks in an hour.
Only 15 states, including Virginia, have adopted the tougher standard, while the remaining states enforce a less-stringent 0.10 limit. A proposal for lowering the level to 0.08 recently was defeated in the Maryland General Assembly. The District of Columbia has adopted 0.08 as the minimum blood-alcohol level for a charge of driving while intoxicated, but that standard has not yet taken effect.
Roughly 40 percent of all highway fatalities are alcohol-related crashes. Although outward appearances vary, virtually all drivers are substantially impaired at 0.08 with regard to critical driving tasks such as braking, steering, changing lanes and general judgment, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The liquor and restaurant industry has mounted a newspaper advertising, letter-writing and direct lobbying campaign, charging that proponents were engaging in "federal blackmail" and trampling on the states' rights to decide for themselves. The industry also retained Ann Eppard, a former top aide to House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) and now a transportation lobbyist, to help kill the measure.
What's more, the industry, which boasts large political action committees (PACs), has contributed generously to the campaigns of congressional Republicans and Democrats during the past year to ensure receiving a friendly hearing. The National Beer Wholesalers, the National Restaurant Association, the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers and other alcohol beverage organizations contributed a total of $110,000 to the campaigns of GOP and Democratic members of the House Transportation Committee, according to Federal Election Commission figures.
Beer, wine and liquor industry PACs also funneled $505,980 of unregulated "soft money" to the Republican Party and $394,620 to the Democratic National Committee in 1997.
"We're in a big-league fight," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), a supporter of the tougher anti-drunken driving provision.
With strong encouragement from President Clinton, who favors tougher uniform standards, the Senate approved the higher uniform standard March 4 as part of massive six-year highway reauthorization legislation.
But Shuster rejected the tougher standards in a version of the highway bill that he pushed through his committee earlier this week, saying he prefers to use economic incentives rather than threats of sanctions to encourage states to adopt the 0.08 standard and other traffic safety rules. That set the stage for a showdown next week as proponents vowed to carry the fight to the House floor.
Industry and congressional opponents of the measure argue that there is no conclusive research demonstrating that tougher alcohol content standards actually reduce the incidents of life-threatening drunken driving. They say that the tougher standards would only penalize "responsible" individuals who are stopped by the police after having only a couple of drinks.
"In states that have passed the 0.08 standards we're finding that the more responsible drinkers are cutting back further," said Rick Berman, general counsel to the American Beverage Institute, an association of major family restaurant chains and the leading opponent of the measure. "What happens is traffic safety doesn't improve, but responsible folks are intimidated out of moderate drinking."
But proponents including Reps. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.) and Castle say there is compelling evidence that the tougher standards do work and that the liquor and restaurant industries are putting their concerns about profits ahead of saving lives. More than 17,000 Americans were killed last year by drunken drivers and 3,700 of those were killed by crashes involving blood alcohol levels below 0.10. If every state adopted the 0.08 blood-alcohol standards, an estimated 500 to 600 lives could be saved every year, according to the National Safety Council.
"We are poised today at a crucial moment in the fight to make our nation's roads safer and to protect America's families from the needless tragedy of drunk driving," Lowey said at a news conference yesterday. "Next week, the House will decide whether the liquor lobby gets to set our nation's drunk driving laws."
Over the years, the liquor lobby with its deep pockets has been highly effective at combating the 0.08 measure at the state level. Proponents believe that their best chance for success is to press for passage of a uniform federal standard.
Despite Shuster's opposition to imposing the 0.08 standard, some Republicans say the measure stands a good chance of being approved if the House Rules Committee allows it to be offered an as amendment to the highway bill next week. "I haven't done a whip count or anything, but my gut feeling is that it would go," said Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the chief deputy majority whip.
The proposal has demonstrated it has strong appeal among conservatives as well as liberals and moderates. In the Senate, the measure offered by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) was overwhelmingly approved, 62 to 32. The issue is compelling for many lawmakers because of the testimony of family members of victims of tragic drunk driving incidents.
For example, Maryland resident Brenda Frazier yesterday spoke emotionally at the news conference about how a driver with a 0.08 blood-alcohol content struck and killed her 9-year-old daughter, Ashley, while she was waiting for a school bus in December 1995.
"We learned the hardest way possible that no one, nowhere is immune to this crime," Frazier said.
Washington Post researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company