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National standard near to determine if drivers are drunk

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After years of debate, Congress moved closer Tuesday to adopting a national standard to determine whether a driver is drunk.

House and Senate negotiators approved a compromise measure that sets the blood alcohol limit of drunkenness at 0.08 percent, a reading stricter than what is currently used by more than half the states.

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A House vote on the proposal could come as early as Wednesday. Approval there would send the measure on to the Senate. Should it pass there, too, President Clinton is expected to sign it.

Nineteen states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia already use the 0.08 standard while most other states set a blood alcohol level of 0.10 percent as their legal definition of drunkenness. Under the proposed legislation, states that don't comply with the lower figure would lose up to 8 percent of money due them from the federal highway trust fund.

What states could lose if they don't agree

The compromise announced Tuesday is a victory for traffic safety groups that have worked for years to get a national standard for defining drunken driving. The push was opposed by the liquor and restaurant industries.

Under the compromise, states that do not adopt the 0.08 blood alcohol standard would lose a predetermined portion of their federal highway trust funds in future years:

  •  2 percent in 2004
  •  4 percent in 2005
  •  6 percent in 2006
  •  8 percent in 2007 and beyond

States that adopt the 0.08 standard by 2008 would get back the money lost in previous years.

The compromise eases penalties contained in similar legislation passed by the Senate in 1998 but never adopted by the House. The original plan called for a 10 percent withholding of highway funds by 2005.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, chief sponsor of the original legislation as well as the compromise, said he was satisfied with the less restrictive measure. "This is a reasonable standard we know will save lives," the New Jersey Democrat said.

The highway trust fund, created in 1993, raises money from a 4.3 percent federal gasoline tax and distributes it to states for building highways, bridges and other infrastructure.

CNN Capitol Hill Producer Dana Bash contributed to this report.

 
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