A 130-pound woman drives home after drinking three beers in one hour on an empty stomach. Is she: a social drinker? a drunken driver?
The fine legal line between merriment and menace could change this year under a proposal in Congress to pressure states to broaden their definition of drunken driving.Most states set the threshold for driving while intoxicated at a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 grams per deciliter of blood. Fifteen states, including Utah, use a lower, or stricter, limit of 0.08. Highway safety advocates, insurance companies, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, President Clinton and some lawmakers want to set a national threshold at 0.08.
Under their plan, states that don't go along with the stricter standard would lose a share of their federal highway money.
"We know that people are impaired at 0.08 and should not be driving a car. We know that lives will be saved through the passage of this legislation," said Karolyn Nunnallee, national president of MADD, which has made the proposal its top federal priority.
Opposing the plan are the alcohol industry and restaurant and tavern associations, as well as state officials who resent federal mandates and sanctions.
Lowering the drunken driving threshold "criminalizes responsible social drinking," says Scott Stenger, lobbyist for the Tavern League of Wisconsin, whose group has successfully opposed a 0.08 limit in Madison.
Next month, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., will try to amend the five-year highway bill to include the tougher limit. His prospects are uncertain.
Although bills to create a national drunken driving standard were introduced almost a year ago, the issue got an unexpected burst of publicity after the death of Princess Diana last August. Advocates cited the crash in calling for tougher laws: In France, where the accident occurred, the standard for drunken driving is .05 - half the level that is enforced in most of the United States. Nearly all other industrial nations are at .08 or lower.
But opponents fired back, pointing out that Diana's driver had a blood-alcohol concentration far exceeding .10. They said the tragedy underscored their own argument: that the real drunken driving problem is hard-drinking repeat offenders, not drinkers on the margin.
"If we know where the problem is, why are we going after what heretofore was considered social drinking?" asks John Doyle, spokesman for the American Beverage Institute, which represents restaurants that serve alcohol. The institute has vocally opposed the bill.
Doyle points to statistics that show that drivers at 0.08 or 0.09 accounted for under 6 percent of all U.S. alcohol-related traffic deaths in 1996, about the same share as drivers with lower levels of alcohol in their systems.
But the chief argument his group makes is that the lower limit would lead police to arrest non-problem social drinkers, "making it illegal for a 120-pound woman to drive after drinking two glasses of wine over a two-hour period."
There's fine print to such claims: In reality, that 120-pound woman's blood-alcohol content will depend on everything from the size of those wine glasses to her own metabolism.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which supports the .08 limit, offers its own examples of how a person of average metabolism can reach .08: a 200-pound male drinking five 12-ounce beers in an hour; a 170-pound male drinking five beers in two hours; a 90-pound female drinking two beers in one hour.
But traffic safety officials say the number of drinks it takes to reach the limit is irrelevant; it's what happens after you've reached it that matters.
"All of our experiments have shown that virtually everyone is impaired at 0.08," says Jim Fell, chief of research and evaluation for the highway safety agency. "They show detriments of 50 to 60 percent in steering, braking, divided attention."
There were 17,126 alcohol-related traffic deaths in the United States in 1996. Supporters of 0.08 estimate the lower limit could save 500 or more lives each year, a figure disputed by opponents.
Last year, proposals for a 0.08 threshold passed in two states but failed in 21 others.