Alaska Legislature to look at lower drunken driving standard

Posted: Tuesday, October 10, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Lawmakers say a tough new federal standard for drunken driving probably will be adopted in Alaska after the next legislative session to avoid some stiff financial penalties.

But the debate continues about whether the lower standard -- a 0.08 blood-alcohol level -- will mean safer roads.

Alaska's current drunken-driving limit is a blood-alcohol content of 0.10. That's the same as the blood-alcohol level for 30 other states.

Congress last week passed a national 0.08 level. States must comply by the year 2004 or be stripped of millions of dollars in federal highway money.

''I guess we'll roll over. We'll put the thing in. We'll see if it has any true effect. After four- or five years, we can measure it,'' said Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Alaska would lose $3.6 million in 2004. The annual penalty would rise to an estimated $14.3 million by 2007.

The 36 drivers who were hurt or killed in fatal motor vehicle crashes in Alaska last year had some alcohol in their system, said Greg Wilkinson, a spokesman for the Alaska State Troopers.

Of those, 21 had a blood alcohol content below 0.10. Another 10 were between 0.10 and 0.20. Five people had levels above that, Wilkinson said, citing data from the Alaska Highway Safety Planning Office.

Troopers support dropping the legal limit to 0.08, he said.

''Anything in the law that encourages people to be more cautious about the number of drinks they have before getting behind the wheel is positive,'' Wilkinson told the Anchorage Daily News.

An analysis by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that four of the five states that lowered the legal limit to 0.08 saw significant declines in alcohol-related fatal crashes.

Another study by Boston University concluded that if all states adopted the 0.08 illegal blood-alcohol limit, then the number of fatal car crashes would drop by at least 500 a year.

The liquor industry has argued nationally that drunks involved in fatal accidents usually are well over the limit, with an average blood alcohol level of 0.17. So even lower limits wouldn't do much good, some say.

State Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, has sponsored legislation over the past six years that would set a 0.08 blood-alcohol limit in Alaska. His bill never got a hearing.

Elton said he's grateful that Congress is putting some financial pressure on the states.

''It does reduce danger on our highways,'' Elton said. ''Fewer people are crippled, injured or killed on our highways. It just makes sense from the health and safety standpoint, from the economic standpoint.''

House Speaker Brian Porter, a former Anchorage police chief, said he expects legislative hearings on the 0.08 issue in the coming session.

If Alaska adopts the lower limit in time, then the state could qualify for federal incentive payments of about $800,000 a year through a program that ends in 2003, the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities said.

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