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Clinton signs tougher drunken driving law
States that don't comply risk loss of federal funds
CNN Correspondents Patty Davis and Hena Cuevas contributed to this report written by CNN.com Senior Writer Jim Morris
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States now has a national standard to determine whether a driver is legally drunk, a law that proponents say could save hundreds of lives a year. It could also be costly for states that don't comply.
U.S. President Bill Clinton on Monday signed into a law a bill that sets a blood alcohol limit for drunkenness at 0.08 percent, a level stricter than what is currently used by more than half the states.
"For me this is a very good day for the United States," Clinton said. He said the measure was "the biggest step to toughen drunk driving laws and reduce alcohol-related crashes since the national minimum drinking age was established a generation ago."
The president was joined in a Rose Garden ceremony by Millie Webb, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, representatives from MADD's National Youth Summit to Prevent Underage Drinking and federal legislators who led the congressional effort for the legislation.
It was adopted by the House and Senate earlier this month, culminating a three-year push by anti-drunken driving activists to have national legislation enacted.
"Alcohol is still the single greatest factor in motor vehicle deaths and injuries," Clinton said. "This law, 0.08, is simply a common sense way to stop that."
31 states don't meet new standard
Nineteen states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia already use a 0.08 blood alcohol level to indicate drunkenness, but 31 states have a limit of 0.10.
Those states that do not implement the lower number by 2004 would lose 2 percent of their federal highway money, with the penalty climbing to 8 percent by 2007.
States that adopt the stricter standard by 2007 would get back any lost highway funds.
Backers of the measure say too many drunken driving accidents occur in states with the higher 0.10 blood alcohol limit.
"We need to save lives," says Brad Fralick, executive director of the MADD chapter in Illinois. "There's no reason people need to drink and drive, and setting it at 0.08 is a reasonable standard."
Law 'unfairly targets social drinkers'
Illinois, which adopted the 0.08 blood alcohol standard in 1997, saw the number of drunken drivers involved in fatal crashes drop by more than 10 percent in the first year.
Since then, however, alcohol-related fatalities in the state are up, rising nearly 6 percent in 1999, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Critics of a national 0.08 standard, led by the liquor and restaurant industries, argue that the law unfairly targets social drinkers and does not address the true problem -- chronic drunken drivers.
"That shifts our national focus away from a product abuser ... (to) a debate over whether or not someone who has two glasses of wine is drunk," says John Doyle, a spokesman for the American Beverage Institute.
Clinton dismissed that objection.
The new, national law "is not, contrary to what some of the propaganda against it said, about just having a drink or two after dinner," the president said.
"Lowering the limit will make responsible Americans take even greater care when they drink alcohol in any amounts if they intend to drive -- and it should," Clinton said.
How many drinks would it take?
A 170-pound man could consume approximately four drinks in an hour on an empty stomach before reaching 0.08 limit, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics cited by MADD.
A 137-pound woman could have three drinks in an hour before reaching 0.08.
MADD, which says nearly 16,000 people were killed last year in alcohol-related crashes, estimates that 500 deaths would be avoided every year if each state adopts the 0.08 benchmark.
"Every 33 minutes, a person is killed in a drunk driving crash," Webb said. "It is still the most frequently committed violent crime in our nation. But those deaths, all of these deaths, are completely preventable."
Congress passes national .08 blood alcohol standard for drunken drivers
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