NY Lowers BAC to Save Road Funds

Tue December 17, 2002 - National Edition
Mary S. Yamin-Garone

Under Section 1404 of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), millions of dollars in federal highway grants are available to those states that establish a .08-percent blood alcohol concentration (BAC) as the legal limit for drunk driving offenses. For those states that do not adopt the lower BAC by Oct. 1, 2003, 2 percent of certain highway funds will be withheld, again totaling millions of dollars.

It seems like a no-brainer. Yet many states — 15 to be exact — including New York, have yet to conform.

But that may change.

In a recent shift of position, New York’s Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno has committed to advancing a bill introduced by a fellow Republican senator from Long Island that would lower the BAC; thereby saving dozens of lives every year and securing tens of millions of dollars in federal aid.

Previously Bruno was lukewarm about supporting what is referred to as the anti-DWI law. His reluctance to go along with the bill has been because it did not include stiffer penalties for chronic alcohol abusers.

Bruno, who as recently as last month, would not commit to doing the .08 bill this year, said the Senate would go along with the Assembly “rather than play this game that they play of one-upmanship.” The Senate is expected to vote on the legislation when it returns to session on Dec. 17.

Both the Senate and Assembly previously passed laws that would have complied with the federal demands for the lower rate and stiffer penalties for drunken drivers. However, the two chambers failed to negotiate differences in their legislation, costing the state its federal funds. Bruno said his conference would continue to pressure the Assembly to adopt tougher penalties for repeat drunken drivers.

Millions Already Lost

Signed into law in 1998, TEA-21 authorized highway, highway safety, transit and other surface transportation programs. As part of this act, a new incentive grant program was established under Section 163 of Title 23, United States. Under this program states can qualify for incentive grant funds by enacting and enforcing laws that provide that “any person with a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or greater while operating a motor vehicle in the state shall be deemed to have committed a per se offense of driving while intoxicated.”

A total of $550 million was authorized for the six-year program beginning in Fiscal Year (FY) 1998. Fifty-five million dollars was authorized for FY 1998, $65 million for 1999, $80 million for 2000, $90 million for 2001, $100 million for 2002 and $110 million for 2003. Funds are appropriated annually to those states that qualify for grants according to the Section 402 formula, which is apportioned 75 percent based on the state’s population and 25 percent based on the number of public road miles in the state.

New York has already lost out on approximately $36.5 million. It would have lost a final $6-million incentive if the issue wasn’t settled. These incentives cannot be recovered once they are lost.

“I am surprised legislation lowering the BAC in New York wasn’t passed sooner,” claimed Liz Elvin, communications director for the New York State Associated General Contractors (NYSAGC). “Each year the amount of money distributed has increased but those funds are gone now. We will never get that money back.”

Starting Oct. 1, 2003, states that have not adopted the .08 level will be punished further when a portion of their highway funds will be withheld. Those sanctions start at $12.4 million in 2003 and rise annually, reaching $49.2 million in 2006. The money is to be withheld for four years before it becomes irretrievable. States have until July to submit their plans.

“Unlike the incentive grants,” Elvin explained, “that money can be retrieved. The penalty starts at two percentage points of federal highway money in 2004, and increases by two percentage points for each year of non-compliance until it reaches 8 percent beginning in 2007. If states adopt the .08 limit by 2007 it will receive all of the funds withheld in previous years.

“While NYSAGC has not been involved in lobbying for the bill’s passage, we haven’t come out against it either. I don’t know what their [legislature] objection is to lowering the BAC. I am shocked that our legislators are comfortable letting that money slip away year after year.”

According to Elvin, motorists also will reap the benefits of this legislation.

“Now they [motorists] are suffering,” she said. “They have to drive long distances because bridges are closed or posted. Five or 10 million dollars would fix those bridges. Sometimes it is the little bridges that mean the most to people. They are so vital to small communities.”

Why .08?

Regardless of how much alcohol it takes to get to this level, at .08 BAC any driver is a dangerous threat on the road. That is the level at which the fatal crash risk significantly increases and virtually everyone is impaired. All of the basic critical driving skills including braking, steering, lane changing, judgment and response time are affected.

Supporters of tougher DWI laws, who estimate that reducing the rate will save about 40 lives annually, said they appreciated Bruno’s desire to include tougher penalties in the package but voiced approval that he gave in on the .08 issue.

“We’re very appreciative of Sen. Bruno’s willingness to back .08 by itself so we can start saving lives now,” said Karen Pettigrew, Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s (MADD) New York public policy liaison.

The American Beverage Institute, a Washington-based restaurant trade association, opposes a .08 law, saying it will hurt the fight against drunken driving by targeting responsible drinkers instead of alcohol abusers.