The House of Representatives yesterday passed a bill that would offer $125 million in new highway safety funds over the next three years to states that approve stricter laws against drunk driving--a crime that officials say kills more than 25,000 Americans annually.
The District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia could not now qualify for the funds because their laws are not stringent enough, although D.C. is closest to meeting the basic criteria, according to officials of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The bill passed on a voice vote after Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), one of its authors, called on Congress to give states the incentive to take strong action against drunk driving, calling it "an insanity that wipes out 5,000 of our teen-agers every year." Barnes said that under current state laws, the "risk of punishment is low and the deterrent effect is weak."
The bill now goes to the Senate, which is expected to approve it today.
States that receive funds under the new program must use the money to help enforce drunk driving laws through media programs, increased highway patrols or other means.
The bill also authorizes the use of $2 million to computerize the National Driver Registry so states can determine whether an applicant's license has been revoked elsewhere.
The legislation encourages states to adopt a model drunk driving law that would provide stricter penalties and make it easier for prosecutors to obtain convictions in these cases. In order to obtain the funds, a state would have to enact a law with these four provisions:
* Prompt suspension of a license for at least 90 days for a first offender and at least one year for a repeat offender. Offenders would include anyone who fails a chemical sobriety test or a suspected offender who refuses to submit to one.
* Mandatory sentences of at least 48 consecutive hours in jail or at least 10 days community service for an offender convicted twice within a five-year period.
* Changes in evidence requirements that would make it easier for prosecutors to obtain convictions.
* Increased enforcement of the state's drunk driving laws.