Boston — Efforts to get drunk drivers off American highways are continuing to gain momentum.
Within the last six weeks at least seven states have enacted tougher laws to help prevent liquor-related traffic accidents, which are estimated to account for more than half of the 50,000 deaths across the US last year.
At the same time, the US Senate last week approved legislation providing additional highway safety funds for states whose driving-while-intoxicated (DWI) statutes meet prescribed mimimum standards. The bill cleared the Senate by voice vote and without a whisper of dissent.
Key provisions of the measure, co-sponsored by Sens. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island and John C. Danforth (R) of Missouri, include a major upgrading of the national drunk driver register, by which states share information on arrests and license suspensions.
To qualify for a one-year doubling of federal highway safety funds, a state would have to provide an automatic license suspension of not less than 90 days for a first DWI conviction and a minimum of 48 consecutive hours in jail for the second and each subsequent conviction. Such mandatory sentences could not be suspended nor waived by a judge.
The Senate-approved legislation is similar to a measure being considered in the House.
The Danforth-Pell measure provides an additional $25 million in highway safety funds in fiscal 1983 and twice that amount to be shared among the complying states in the following year.
To speed the collection of drunk driver data, the national registry would be switched from a mail reporting system to an electronic setup, funded by an initial appropriation of $2 million, then with $1.2 million provided for its operations in fiscal 1983, $1.5 million in fiscal 1984, and $2.1 million in fiscal 1985.
At least 17 states have put tougher anti-drunk driver measures on their books thus far at 1982 lawmaking sitting, according to Catherine Yoe of the Highway Users Federation, based in Washington, D.C.
The new statutes, which vary widely from state to state, include tougher penalties for DWI conviction, including mandatory sentences in some instances, longer license suspensions, and raised minimum drinking ages.
Drunk driver legislation also appears to be nearing passage in Arizona and Oklahoma.