Reagan's red light to drunk drivers

The interim report of the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving could hardly have come at a more propitious time. This week has been officially designated by the White House as National Drunk and Drugged Driving Awareness Week. This also happens to be the season of the year when - because of office parties and other holiday social gatherings - there is an increase in the consumption of alcoholic beverages by many Americans.

Thus the 30-member presidential panel headed up by former Massachusetts Governor John Volpe has produced a first-stage report that puts the whole issue in just the right perspective. Citizen action groups and local lawmakers will want to use the preliminary recommendations as a starting point in drafting new laws when many state legislatures convene next month.

As the commission notes, what is most needed is a comprehensive attack on drunken driving that combines tough laws, penalties, and license revocations for repeat offenders with educational programs aimed at young people in particular. Rehabilitation would be included in such a plan but only as a supplement to other efforts. The objective must be to get the drinking driver off the highway.

Several recommendations seem especially apt:

* Having states raise their legal drinking age to 21 for all persons. In states that have already done so there has been a noticeable decline in accidents involving younger drivers, who, studies show, tend to be involved in a disproportionately high percentage of traffic accidents. The New Jersey legislature approved a bill raising the drinking age to 21 earlier this week. The measure is supported by Governor Kean.

* Having states adopt a uniform requirement making it illegal for motorists to have a blood alcohol content of 0.1 percent or higher. Some 23 states already have such a provision. The 0.1 percent level is a step in the right direction. Such a provision, however, should be only a prelude to an eventual uniform limitation of .05 percent, such as in Sweden. The commission should consider adopting the tougher .05 percent standard when it issues its final report next April.

* Establishing mandatory sentencing for drunken drivers, again common to many nations. The drafting of such legislation will be particularly crucial to avoid legal challenges.

Obviously, states will need to ensure a combination of fair penalties combined with educational and rehabilitative programs. But at the same time, given the imbalance that has for too long existed in American society - with drinking drivers involved in an estimated half of all traffic fatalities - society will have to adopt a much-tougher, no-nonsense approach to the problem than has been the case up to now. As the Scandinavian nations have proven - where such comprehensive programs are in place - society need not tolerate the terrible tragedies that can result from drinking and driving.

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