Will drunk-driving law and drive-through daiquiris mix?

Louisiana's carefree verve and dislike of federal dictates may lead it to oppose new, stricter DUI standard.

Motorists pull up at drive-through daiquiri stands and cruise off with frozen cocktails.

Passengers in cars legally sip beer, wine, or any other sort of alcohol. This city's unofficial motto - laissez les bon temps rouler - translates "Let the good times roll."

In this part of the country, any law that inhibits alcohol consumption tends to be unpopular.

"People around here truly feel that they drink responsibly - they feel it's part of their culture and their lifestyle," says Craig Forsyth, a sociology professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "Any kind of law that interferes with that is going to hit resistance."

A tough new federal law may hit quite a bit of resistance. The legislation, signed by President Clinton last month, will punish any state that fails to lower drivers' legal blood-alcohol content from .10 percent to .08 percent. If Louisiana's legislature doesn't comply by 2003, the federal government will revoke more than $5 million in highway funding. If the state continues to resist, it will lose more than $20 million in 2007 and every year thereafter.

Recent history indicates that compliance will take a while. Louisiana was the last state to raise the legal drinking age to 21, and did so only under severe federal pressure. It wasn't until 1995, again under federal pressure, that the state made it illegal to drink alcohol while driving.

"Especially in the southern part of the state, there is an unusual degree of tolerance for drinking and driving," says James Champagne, executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission.

Although supporters of the new law are confident that the Louisiana legislature will eventually comply, they expect a fight from the powerful restaurant and liquor lobbying groups. And Gov. Mike Foster, who supports the .08 limit, has said that Louisianans themselves will be resistant.

In fact, the state is culturally divided on the issue of alcohol. Largely Baptist north Louisiana is a Bible Belt region: Its residents have traditionally taken a dim view of alcohol. French-influenced, Roman Catholic south Louisianans are more alcohol-friendly.

New Orleans has an easy relationship with alcohol because of the city's strong European roots. Like the people of Paris or Barcelona, New Orleanians have long viewed alcohol as an everyday part of life.

"Culturally, New Orleans remained a European city longer than any other American city," says Lawrence Powell, a Tulane University history professor. "That's very true of people's view of alcohol here - we're not at all puritanical about it."

New Orleans' history of health disasters also contributed to its embrace of alcohol. In the 19th century, the city's drinking water came straight from the Mississippi River or cisterns that were often filled with harmful bacteria. New Orleanians quickly learned not to drink the water. "The drinking water was just a breeding ground for disease, so beer consumption shot up," Professor Powell says. "You knew beer wasn't going to kill you."

A recent poll paid for by Mothers Against Drunk Driving found that 79 percent of Louisianans think the stricter limit is appropriate. Few people believe, however, that the tougher standard will pass the state legislature easily. Mr. Forsyth says it doesn't help that Washington appears to be forcing Louisiana to change its ways.

"There's this Southern mentality that the federal government is trying to impose something on the South again," he says. "I don't think most people are necessarily in disagreement with the law. But first of all, we've got this whole culture surrounding drinking - and now here's someone from outside trying to tell us ... how to behave."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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