Legislatures now the focus of war on drunk driving

Drunken driving, once considered a minor social vice, has become a political cause c'el`ebre for the '80s. Every state legislature in the country has passed some type of bill designed to combat drunk and drugged driving. The overwhelming majority of these initiatives has taken root in the past few years, as public awareness of the hazards associated with drunk driving began to spread.

By one estimate, the 50 state legislatures enacted 478 new laws relating to alcohol and highway safety during the five legislative sessions from 1981 to 1985. In New York alone, by the count of a staff member, the Legislature has passed 49 separate bills since 1980 in an attempt to curb drunk driving.

``It was a really terrible experience trying to get [the Legislature] to consider any serious legislation anytime -- there was so much ducking and diving,'' recalls William T. Smith III, a Republican state senator in New York and chairman of a 1980 state Senate task force on drunk driving. ``Now it's fashionable, everybody wants to climb on the bandwagon.''

The progress in combating drunk driving, as well as the challenges that remain to be faced, were underscored in a report presented to President Reagan yesterday by the National Commission Against Drunk Driving (NCADD), a nongovern-mental body set up two years ago to monitor the progress made on carrying out 39 anti-drunk-driving recommendations set down in 1983 by the Presidential Commission Against Drunk Driving. The report was released yesterday to coincide with the start of National Drunk and Drugged

Driving Awareness week, an event sponsored by the federal Department of Transportation.

Among other things, the report highlights mushrooming legislative activity aimed at reducing traffic fatalities across the country. For example, when Mr. Reagan signed the Uniform Minimum Drinking Age law in July 1984, 23 states had a minimum drinking age of 21. Threatened with a partial cutoff in federal highway funds, 37 states have now set 21 as the minimum legal drinking age. At least four more legislatures have similar bills under consideration.

The commission report also points out wide discrepancies in the types of anti-drunk-driving statutes on state books, as well as substantial variations in state enforcement and public awareness of the laws. It also leaves unanswered some of the questions that have been a source of strong disagreement within the anti-drunk-driving movement itself: for instance, whether or not penalties are effective, when and how to revoke driver's licenses for alcohol-related traffic offenses, and whether people should b e encouraged to become teetotalers or be instructed how to drink alcohol more responsibly.

``I wouldn't want anybody to get the message that we're there, and we can rest easily, because we've got a long way to go,'' says Vincent J. Adduci, chairman of NCADD. Indeed, although annual alcohol-related highway fatalities estimated by the National Highway Transportation Safety Board fell from 28,000 in 1980 to 23,500 last year, fatalities are expected to be slightly higher this year. But, Mr. Adduci adds, ``we've made tremendous progress compared to where we were just four years ago.''

By some accounts, public attitudes on drinking and driving have been significantly transformed, although, for anti-drunk-driving activists, not dramatically enough. ``The final change is only going to come when each and every one of us says, `If I'm going to drink, I'm not going to drive,'' Adduci says.

That day is not imminent, experts say. A May 1984 survey by pollster Louis Harris showed that the public's No. 1 health and safety priority was the avoidance of alcohol before driving. But the same poll showed that 65 percent of US drivers would not hesitate to drive after drinking. Still, that is lower than the 80 percent figure a similar Gallup poll recorded two years earlier.

The growing popularity of the cause has been fed by a sprawling array of anti-drunk and drugged driving groups. Such long-tenured groups as the Women's Christian Temperance Union have been joined by relative upstarts like Mothers Aganist Drunk Driving which, in turn, has spawned a host of similarly titled groups: Students Against Drunk Driving, Truckers Against Drunk Driving, and Bartenders Against Drunk Driving. Their efforts have been complemented by those of such organizations as the Distilled Spirit s Council of the United States, an industry trade group, and Seagram's, the Canadian distiller that has taken out newspaper ads exhorting readers not to mix alcohol and driving.

NCADD's board of trustees includes representatives from insurance companies, the alcohol industry, anti-drunk-driving activists, and the news media. According to one board member, the mix makes it difficult to agree on policies to curb drunk driving.

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