President Clinton recently signed a bill requiring the government to swipe federal highway dollars from states that fail to set a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent as the legal standard for drunk driving.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia already comply, but Ohio and most other states label drivers intoxicated at 0.1 percent.
Under the new federal law, states that do not cut the limit to 0.08 percent by 2004 will lose 2 percent of their federal highway funding for that year. The cut increases to 4 percent in 2005, 6 percent in 2006 and 8 percent every year thereafter until the state enacts compliant legislation. Based on Ohio's 2001 share of federal highway funding, $875 million, the state stands to lose $70 million annually at the maximum percentage.
The federal government has employed similar tactics to control state legislation in the past. In 1974, Congress demanded each state lower its maximum speed limit to 55 miles per hour or lose all federal highway funds. Few states could weather such a significant loss of revenue, and all reduced their speed limits as commanded. Fifty-five miles per hour remained the nationwide speed limit until the end of 1995. Washington used similar pressure to establish a nationwide minimum drinking age of 21.
Such federal interference with state governance contradicts the U.S. Constitution. The men who drafted the Constitution risked their fortunes and, in many cases, their lives to battle the excessive power of England's central government. Understandably, they limited the authority of their new country's own federal government by carefully and clearly defining its powers. Article X of the Bill of Rights gives state governments and the people all powers not specifically bestowed on the federal government.
But the federal government discovered that, when it wishes to rule on issues outside its constitutionally defined boundaries — as it did when setting nationwide speed limits and drinking ages — it can do so through financial coercion. Amazingly, the constitutionality of this strategy has not yet been challenged by the states.
If Ohio lowers the BAC limit in its drunk-driving statute, it will do so because of federal financial pressure, not because of the deliberate choice of the people's elected representatives. Since Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) first pressured states to enact the 0.08 percent limit, Ohio lawmakers have firmly resisted. In the current session of the General Assembly, a BAC-reduction bill by Rep. Rex Damschroder, R-Fremont, garnered only six co-sponsors and has languished in the Transportation and Public Safety Committee for nearly two years.
Ohio Senate President Richard Finan, R-Cincinnati, has provided additional evidence of the legislature's desire to leave the drunk-driving statute as is and its willingness to battle the federal government over the issue.
"Maybe it's time to take this kind of federal mandate and test it before the U.S. Supreme Court," Finan told The Columbus Dispatch.
But although Finan claims the 0.08 percent limit is not the answer to reducing drunk-driving deaths and injuries, statistical analysis of the correlation between traffic accidents and BAC levels seems to indicate lives could be saved by this lower limit.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, completed such a correlative study in April. By linking traffic fatalities and BAC levels measured at crash sites, the study shows the risk of being involved in a fatal accident is nearly identical for drivers with blood-alcohol levels of 0.08 percent and 0.1 percent. Since a BAC level of 0.1 percent is considered sufficiently dangerous to be illegal, it seems reasonable to argue that lower but equally dangerous levels should also be illegal.
But whether such changes in Ohio's laws would save no lives or one million lives, the Constitution demands the governance of this issue belongs to the states, not Congress. Circumventing the crystal-clear intent of the Constitution should never be an option for the federal government, the sworn protectors of that very document.
contact Pete Shuler: [email protected]