Standards may Tighten for Kentucky DUI Law

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (December 28, 1999) – Supporters of lowering the threshold at which motorists are considered legally too drunk to drive are hoping to break through a roadblock that stopped them just short of success in 1998.

A proposal to drop the legal blood-alcohol level to 0.08 from 0.1 sailed through the Kentucky House nearly two years ago.

But it stalled in the Senate, where it never came up for a vote during the final days of the session.

Since then, Republicans have seized control of the Senate, and some supporters of tougher drunken-driving laws hope the new equation adds up to success.

”I feel like a change there is going to make a positive difference,” said Sara McKinney, a spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Ms. McKinney said public intolerance toward drunken driving has grown in recent years, and she hopes the General Assembly’s attitude falls in line.

A tougher DUI standard is one of several highway-safety proposals expected to surface during the 2000 General Assembly, which begins Jan. 4.

Another proposal backed by MADD, as well as Kentucky State Police, would outlaw open alcohol containers in vehicles.

Kentucky must enact an open-container law and toughen drunken-driving statutes or risk having a portion of its federal highway construction funds diverted for highway safety, said state Transportation Cabinet official Jeff Mosley.

Kentucky hasn’t met a federal mandate to pass a law either impounding the vehicles of repeat DUI offenders or installing a device that offenders would have to breathe into before their vehicles would start, Mosley said.

Rep. Jack Coleman, D-Burgin, will once again be a primary sponsor of legislation to lower the blood-alcohol limit to 0.08.

Then-Senate President Larry Saunders and Democratic Floor Leader David Karem stopped the 1998 version, but Coleman said it was Louisville-area restaurant owners, not Saunders and Karem individually, who killed that bill.

Coleman said he didn’t know if the shift in power to the GOP would make a difference in determining the fate of next year’s proposal.

”The battle ground will be whoever the Jefferson County Restaurant Association chooses to target,” he said.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Gross Lindsay said he supported stiff punishment against drivers take to the road impaired by excessive drinking.

But the Henderson Democrat was hesitant about lowering the legal threshold to 0.08.

”That’s grandstanding,” said Lindsay.

”That’s the social drinker.”

For a 180-pound person, it takes about five drinks an hour on a empty stomach to reach a .10 blood-alcohol reading, while it takes three or four drinks to reach a . 08 reading.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Stivers said he supported mandatory jail time for motorists with extremely high blood-alcohol levels, but was undecided about whether to lower the legal threshold to 0.08.

Ms. McKinney pointed to scientific and medical proof indicating that drivers with a 0.08 blood-alcohol concentration are impaired.

”If we know we can save lives, what’s stopping us?” she asked.

”We’ve proved that you could save lives. With that, the voters expect their representatives and senators to pass laws that save lives and prevent injuries.”

On another traffic safety front, state police want to make seat-belt violations a primary offense.

The result would be that police could stop a motorist simply for failing to buckle up.

Under current law a seat-belt violation is a secondary offense, which means a violator can be cited only if stopped for another traffic infraction.

Like the DUI and open-container proposals, state police Lt. Kevin Payne views the seat-belt proposal as a life saver.

Kentucky’s seat-belt usage rate is now 54 percent, below the 68 percent national average, Payne said.

He predicted that Kentucky’s compliance would jump by 10 percent if people could be stopped solely for flouting the seat-belt law.

”Are we going to enforce the primary seat-belt law by stopping people who aren’t wearing their seat belts? Yes, we will,” Payne said.

Payne projected that if Kentucky’s seat-belt compliance rate rose to 70 percent, it would reduce the traffic death toll by 146 people each year.

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