Drinking and Driving

Last week the state of New York joined a national trend worth following. Legislation signed by Gov. George Pataki (R) would, for the first time, authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend the driver's license of a minor arrested while driving with even a scant amount of alcohol in his or her system. The legislation is widely known as the zero-tolerance law.

New York is the 34th state in the nation to pass such a bill, and if President Clinton and Congress have their way, the others will quickly follow suit. The incentive is strong: Congress passed legislation last year requiring the Department of Transportation to withhold highway funds from states that do not enact zero-tolerance laws.

New York's law, which takes effect in November, orders that anyone under 21 caught driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.02 percent or higher lose their license for six months and pay a $125 fine for a first offense. A second offense would result in a license suspension of 12 months or until the person turns 21, whichever is longer. Under current state law, there is no penalty for a person under 21 caught driving with a blood-alcohol level under 0.07 percent.

The legislation is important for several reasons. Drunken-driving deaths rose last year for the first time in a decade, according to a study made public this week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Young people ages 18 to 20 are disproportionately involved in alcohol-related traffic crashes. And, according to traffic-safety and alcohol-prevention advocates, studies show that zero-tolerance measures have reduced the number of these accidents.

Most important, the minimum drinking age across the country is 21. If a young person breaks the law by consuming alcohol - even if it's "just one beer" or a glass of wine - and then climbs into the driver's seat of a car, there should be consequences. States that don't impose a penalty for an individual whose blood-alcohol level is under 0.07 percent are sending a mixed message. A zero-tolerance law neither stigmatizes young people nor violates their rights. It's simply good policy.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.