Alcohol and the Roads

Americans are set to travel the nation's highways in record numbers this summer.

The economy is hot as a summer sidewalk. Gas prices are predicted to reach an all-time low. And a travel survey shows more children will be going along on the drive.

The recently passed, six-year, $200 billion-plus highway bill, packed with highway-improvement projects, aims to make sure that in future when Americans hit the road they'll have a smoother ride.

But, sadly, the final bill failed to include a provision that could have prevented many injuries and saved lives now. Under heavy lobbying from the alcoholic-beverage industry, which didn't want its patrons having one less for the road, a measure to toughen drunken-driving standards was removed. It would have withheld 10 percent of funding from states that failed to adopt a 0.08 percent alcohol standard for determining drunkenness.

Sixteen states and most of the rest of the industrialized world already demand 0.08. A Boston University study shows that drunken-driving deaths dropped 16 percent in the states that have adopted it. Last year California, which set 0.08 as its standard in 1990, had its lowest number of traffic fatalities since 1959 - and this despite speed limits being raised.

The 0.08 standard is hardly prohibition. Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show a 170-pound male would reach the 0.08 level after consuming four drinks in one hour on an empty stomach. A 137-pound woman would do so with three drinks.

The highway bill does provide $719 million in extra money as an incentive to states that crack down on drunken driving. But groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving call such incentives ineffective.

President Clinton - "deeply disappointed" the 0.08 percent test was eliminated - still promised to sign the highway bill.

Congress lost a great opportunity to stand up to lobbyists and make the roads safer. But citizens should continue to press in Washington and state capitols to turn this sensible step into law nationwide. Individuals can write to their lawmakers, perhaps citing local examples of the need to keep drunken drivers off the roads.

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