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Some want to throw back drunk driving bill

There’s one sure way to launch a rollicking conversation in a tavern. Just bring up the debate on whether to lower the drunken driving blood alcohol content limit from 0.10 to 0.08 percent.

That debate jumped from the lounge to the Legislature in the form of Senate Bill 125, and it divides many Coloradans.

The bill would lower drunken driving limits, prohibit open containers in vehicles and make failing to wear a seat belt a primary offense.



That means motorists could be pulled over for not wearing a seat belt. As the law now stands, police can fine a driver for not wearing a seat belt, but must pull the motorist over for something else first.

Sen. Ken Arnold, R-Westminster, introduced the bill in January. It passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday by a vote of 5-1.



Much of the debate comes from the impetus behind the bill: the federal government withholding highway funding.

According to a federal law passed in 2000, states that don’t lower their drunken driving BAC limit to 0.08 percent risk losing federal highway funding. In Colorado’s case, the lost funding adds up to $50 million over the next four years.

“I hate to see the federal government extort us – that’s the way I view this, federal extortion,” said District 57 Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park.

White said he’s not convinced the measure would enhance safety, but predicts that because of the federal highway money at stake, the change will happen.

“I oppose it, but I also recognize that we need those federal funds,” he said. “Ultimately, we will pass this bill.”

White said another bill lowering the BAC limit to 0.08 percent also eliminates Colorado’s driving while ability impaired law, which punishes drivers with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 to 0.09 percent.

If Colorado declines to lower its drunken driving limits, it stands to lose $4.9 million in 2004, $9.9 million in 2005, $14.8 million in 2006 and $19.8 million in 2007. If Colorado lowers the BAC limit to the federal standard by 2007, it would get all withheld money back.

Joe Elsen, Glenwood Springs area project engineer for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said $50 million over four years would pay for roughly half of the Snowmass Canyon project.

Averaging the figure to $12.5 million per year, he said it would pay for about four paving projects like the one completed between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs last summer each year.

In all, CDOT’s yearly budget is a little over $1 billion per year, so the federal money at risk would be little more than 1.2 percent of the total budget.

“I’ve never really heard anybody talk about it, really, other than trying to get as much funding as we can,” he said.

According to advocates for highway safety, a 170-pound man who downs five drinks would reach a 0.08 BAC, measured by milligrams per deciliter of blood, in two hours. A 137-pound woman who consumes three drinks in one hour would also reach the mark.

Nationwide statistics from 1999 compiled by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism show 6.3 percent of motorists suspected of drunken drinking fell into the 0.08 to 0.99 range.

Carbondale bartender Tim O’Rourke said he’s against the proposed law because of the federal arm-twisting and because it could negatively impact the bar business.

“I feel right now, even at 0.10, they already give you hell,” he said. “I think it’s strict enough at 0.10.”

“I wonder what it would do to the jails,” he asked. “We’ll need bigger jails, and who pays for that? Taxpayers.”

Rather than giving into the federal will, O’Rourke suggested a statewide 0.1 percent tax, a penny for every $10 spent, to use for the highways.

Kurt Wigger, owner of the Sopris and Buffalo Valley restaurants, agreed that the law could affect the hospitality business.

“When it goes down to 0.08, you can’t even go out and have a cocktail or a glass of wine,” he said. “Every bar and restaurant is going to be hurt by that. Even gourmet restaurants would be hurt, where you’d just have a bottle of wine.”

Extortion or not, members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the National Safety Council are thrilled to see the lower limits debated in Colorado.

Melodye Turek, president of the Colorado Safety Organization, an affiliate of the National Safety Council, said while the state chapter doesn’t lobby for tougher drunken driving laws, it supports the idea.

Turek said her organization is more focused on other aspects of the proposed law, such as making the lack of seat belt use a primary offense.

“We’ve always been in favor of a primary seat belt law,” she said. “There have been many tries to get a primary seat belt law. . You would think by now that everybody knows that seat belts save lives.”

Colorado State Patrol Captain Barry Bratt, the new troop commander for the Glenwood Springs office, said the CSP favors anything that keeps Colorado’s roads and highways safer.

“If they’d like to drop the DUI level to 0.08, it would have no negative effects on us,” he said.

As it stands now, drivers with a BAC of 0.05 or higher are cited or arrested anyway, so lowering the DUI standard shouldn’t increase his officers’ workload.

“I think if the limit’s lower, it might increase awareness,” he said. “If people realize it’s lower, they’d be more likely to drink a little less.”


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