More states take stricter tack in battling drunk driving

Drunken drivers, the nation's leading highway-safety menace, may be finding it harder and harder to stay on the road - and in more ways than one.

* In 1982, 33 states put new or stricter laws on their books to discourage those under the influence of liquor from getting behind the wheel.

* At least 39 states have enacted drunken driver measures so far this year, with such legislation pending in several others.

* Enforcement of DWI (driving while intoxicated) laws is being toughened in most states, including here in Massachusetts where spot roadblocks on weekends were instituted this summer.

* The special Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving meets Sept. 26 and 27 to put the finishing touches on its recommendations.

The 32-member panel, appointed in May 1982, is expected to consider several controversial proposals and may back down from one of the stronger suggestions in its interim draft released last December.

At issue is whether to call for mandatory 48-hour lockup of drunk drivers upon their first arrest. Some critics contend this is too stiff a penalty and will aggravate the problem of crowded jails.

Within the past 15 months, several states have provided minimum 48-hour sentences for first-time drunken driving convictions.

The Tennessee law, which went into effect in July 1982, has resulted in the jailing and one-year license revocation of 23,751 motorists during its first year, according to a state police lieutentant.

Those found guilty of a second DWI offense face a 45-day sentence, a fine of driving convictions, the penalties are not less than 120 days in jail, a $1,000 to $5,000 fine, and three-year license revocation.

Pennsylvania's toughened drunken driving statute, enacted last December and generally regarded as particularly effective, prohibits plea bargaining. If a motorist is found to have a blood alcohol level of 0.10 percent or more, he or she must spend at least 48 hours in jail and could be sentenced to up to two years behind bars for the first offense.

Also mandated is the loss of driver's license for three years and a fine of up to $5,000. Even stiffer penalties are required for second or repeat DWI offenders.

Besides stiffer punishment, including loss of licenses for longer periods, the presidential commission has suggested states adopt laws under which a motorist who flunks a breath test with a blood alcohol count above 0.10 percent would be deemed legally drunk. No further evidence would be required.

Such minimum control measures are specified in 33 states, according to a recent study by the National Safety Council.

These include 13 enacted this year. Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Texas approved a 0.10 maximum, while Oregon and Utah set theirs at 0.08 percent. Three other states have similar laws but fix higher permissible levels - Colorado at 0.15 percent, Iowa at 0.13 percent, and Georgia at 0.12 percent.

The move toward tougher drunken driving measures, including the 0.10 percent maximum for blood alcohol count, is being spurred considerably by a federal highway safety law passed last fall under which states can qualify for additional funds if they meet certain specified DWI curb standards.

These include not only the 0.10 maximum for blood alchohol count but also a minimum 48-hour mandatory jailing for second DWI convictions and automatic driving license revocation of at least 30 days for first offenders, 60 days for second-timers, 90 days for third offenders, and one year for each additional drunken driving conviction.

In July, North Dakota became the first state to receive the additional funding of a $388,000 grant. Such applications are pending or in preparation in at least 19 other states.

While some modifications in the recommendations of the presidential commission may be approved, there appears to be little likelihood that support for a minimum drinking age of 21 in all states will be abandoned. Seven states so far this year have moved at least partially to raise the drinking age.

Alaska raised the legal drinking age from 19 to 21, Delaware increased it from 20 to 21, Connecticut from 19 to 20, and West Virginia from 18 to 19. Oklahoma beer purchases by 18- through 20-year-olds were outlawed, making the state's drinking age 21 for all liquors. North Carolina increased the legal age from 18 to 19 for beer purchases, while the drinking age for other liquors remains at 21. Virginia, which also restricts most liquors to persons 21 or older, raised its beer drinking age from 18 to 19.

Drinking-age legislation has been under consideration in eight other states, including Wisconsin, where lawmakers this fall are expected to take up proposals to ban liquor of all forms for 18-year-olds and perhaps 19- and 20-year-olds.

Massachusetts, where three years ago the drinking age was raised from 18 to 20, is being prodded by the American Automobile Association and others to raise it another year, but with little success. Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who has made DWI-prevention a major priority of his administration, personally visited several high school proms last spring to urge young people not to drive after drinking.

Through billboards and television and radio messages, the governor is appealing to motorists to keep off the roads after drinking. To help enforce the law, state and local police will be checking drivers at selected points across the commonwealth during the Labor Day weekend. Special efforts to hold down DWI-related traffic accidents are planned in other states during the upcoming holiday.

Several states have approved other measures to deter youths from using liquor.

Oregon, where the drinking age already was 21 for all alcoholic beverages, has passed a new statute requiring automatic three-year license suspension or ban for any liquor-related offenses, whether or not a motor vehicle is involved, for youths 13 to 17. Maine prescribed an automatic one-year license suspension for any teen-ager with a blood alcohol count of 0.02 percent or greater.

A one-year loss of license is required in Washington state for drunken-driving convictions of youths under age 19.

New York drivers involved in a serious traffic accident no longer can decline to take a breath test under legislation signed into law in late July by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. In the past, such refusals were allowed but resulted in an automatic six-month loss of license.

Recent legislation in New Hampshire includes automatic jailing, a $100 fine, and license revocation for 60 days for drunken driving convictions when attempts to elude police or a serious accident is involved, or when the vehicle was operated at least 30 miles per hour above the speed limit.

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