Washington — Uncle Sam is preparing to take the lead in the effort to combat drunken driving. A bipartisan group of more than 50 congressman is sponsoring legislation that would mandate stiffer punishment, especially for repeat offenders, and a similar effort is gaining for momentum in the Senate.
President Reagan last week was urged by a group of lawmakers to take a firm leadership role in finding solutions to a problem the administration acknowledges is becoming more serious. The President is being petitioned by members of Congress to name a special commission that would develop a "national master plan to curtail the tragic suffering caused by the drinking driver epidemic."
There has been no official administration response, but White House drug policy adviser Daniel Leonard says, "Personally, I think it's a great idea."
"I would think there has to be an interest," says Mr. Leonard, a former New York City narcotics officer. "I've seen the damage drunk drivers can do, and it's horrendous."
According to information gathered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Safety Council, accidents caused by drunk drivers result in the most common type of violent death in the United States.
Intoxicated drivers account for some 26,000 deaths and 750,000 injuries annually, more than half the yearly total, at an estimated cost of $5 billion. On a typical weekend night, one in 10 drivers in drunk, but only about one out of 2,000 is arrested.
Many states (Maryland, New York, and California among them) have taken helpful steps to curb the problem, but it continues to get worse. Part of the problem, experts say, is the lack of unifomity between states. In many instances, a driver who has lost his license in one jurisdiction hs little trouble obtaining one in another. Because of poor record keeping, judges and law enforcement officials may not know of an arrested driver's past problems with driving while intoxicated.
Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D)of Maryland and Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island have drafted a bill that seeks to fill these gaps. In order to continue receiving federal highway traffic safety funds (which total some $200 million a year), states would have to sentence first-time drunk drivers to a minimum of 10 days of community service and require their participation in a traffic safety program. Those convicted of drunk driving more than once within a five-year period would be jailed for at least 10 days and lose their license for at least one year, without exception.
Separate legislation would upgrade and computerize the US Department of Transportation's National Driver Register so that states could more easily share information on persons with drunk-driving records.
Supporters point out that none of this would require increased federal spending, but simply tries to encourage states to follow the lead of those in the forefront of combating drunk driving. Maryland has nearly doubled its arrest rate by having more police on duty late at night and early in the morning. Washington state now sends most of its first-time drunk drivers to jail for at least 24 hours.
"From my own experience as a graduate student studying in Switzerland, tough laws, stringent enforcement, and effective public information campaigns work," says Congressman Barnes. "We understood that you just did not drink and drive. Our legislation seeks to create that same atmosphere in the United States."
In a letter to Rep. Glenn M. Anderson (D) of California, chairman of the House surface transportation subcommittee, Department of Transportation officials expressed didapproval of the Barnes-Pell legislation. Federally mandated jail sentences, they said, infringe upon states' rights and judicial discretion.
But the administration says it wants to work with Congress on what Senator Pell calls "American's No. 1 highway safety problem."
"We have the highest rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the world, " says Pell, two of whose aides were killed in accidents involving drunk drivers. "I believe the federal government can encourage state and local governments to expand enforcement against drunk drivers, and at the same time establish a strong national deterrent."