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Right result, wrong method

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The Senate last week moved to require most states to lower their drunken driving levels or lose federal highway money.

The end result is good but the means to achieve it dubious.Utah and 14 other states currently enforce .08 percent blood alcohol levels to determine drunk driving. The other 35 states set the drunk driving standard at a higher level, .10 percent.

Each state and the country is better served by having the lower uniform level of .08 percent.

Supporters of the amendment to the highway funding bill claim 600 lives a year could be saved by all states lowering the limit to the .08 level. That's obviously good.

Why the reluctance then on the part of some senators to pass the measure? The vote was 62-32 with considerably more support from Democrats than Republicans. Democrats supported it 36-6 while as many Republicans were against it, 26, as for it. The even GOP split reflected Utah as Orrin Hatch voted for the measure and Bob Bennett against it.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said he didn't support the amendment because he didn't like any legislation that punished states for not going along with federally imposed mandates. States can lose up to 10 percent of their federal highway funds by not complying with the measure.

And the author of the House version of the highway spending bill, Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, R-Pa., said that "the best way to encourage states to curb drunk driving is by providing incentives, not threats." The House is expected to address the issue later this month.

Shuster and Lott are right. Persuasion through incentives makes more sense to reach the laudable goal of a .08 limit than threats. What's to keep the federal government from using the same tactic in areas other than drunk driving?

Having said that, the .08 level makes more sense than the .10 level. According to a 1997 National Highway Transportation Safety Administration report, a 170-pound man would need to consume more than four drinks in an hour, and a 137-pound woman three drinks, to exceed the .08 percent level.

The American Beverage Institute claims the lower limit only serves to punish social drinkers. More than four drinks in an hour, however, surely qualifies as more than social drinking.

It will be interesting to see if any state opts to forgo some of its highway funding in order to maintain a higher alcohol level. Had the issue been handled correctly, none would have to.