Prevention goal of lower alcohol limit
CARSON CITY — Nevada’s drunken driving threshold drops from 0.10 to 0.08 today, as a result of controversial legislation that finally passed after proponents argued the state would lose millions of dollars in federal funds without the change.
The change in the blood-alcohol count used to determine whether someone’s legally drunk was authorized by the 2003 Legislature after more than a decade of debate.
In Douglas County, authorities doubt the decrease will result in more arrests and a busier sheriff’s department. Sgt. Tom Mezzetta said when he was on patrol most of the people arrested on drunken driving charges registered about 0.14.
In 2002 Douglas County sheriff’s deputies made 246 arrests for drunken driving. The average blood-alcohol content was 0.17. There have been 135 arrests in 2003 with blood-alcohol content averaging 0.18.
Tahoe Township Justice Court had 110 drunken driving arrests funnel through its system in 2002. In 2003 there have been 75 cases.
“I doubt it would increase the number of arrests we see because most of the proof we see at the time of trial or sentencing (is) they’re well over the old limit,” Judge Richard Glasson said.
Glasson and Mezzetta believe the lowering will act as a prevention rather than a catalyst for more drunken driving arrests. Glasson added the decrease will make it easier to prove someone was impaired behind the wheel.
“What I guess it does is make the strike zone bigger,” Glasson said, using a baseball reference.
Assemblyman Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, who made repeated efforts to get the lower threshold and finally succeeded this year, said in an interview that the change will make drivers more responsible — and save lives.
“There was a time in our society when it was socially acceptable (to drink and drive). But not any more,” Manendo said. “Public opinion has gone the other way. When you talk about drunken driving fatalities, years ago people would say that’s too bad. Now they see it as murder.
“I think people are going to be more conscious about their habits,” he said. “Society has to be more conscious about these things.”
Nevada lawmakers had similar legislation before them for six sessions prior to the 2003 session. Besides the safety arguments, this time the proponents of the lower threshold warned that Nevada would lose more than $28 million over the next four years unless it was adopted, under terms of a congressional mandate in 2000.
“We lost millions over the years anyway by not passing 0.08 until now,” Manendo said. “There were federal incentive funds for states. Now, we’d also be penalized and we couldn’t do that.”
When the 0.08 bill won final legislative approval in late May, state Sen. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, said the state waited as long as it could before giving up its “cavalier and code-of-the-West opinions” and going to the lower standard.
Others said the state was being blackmailed by threats of lost federal funds. Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani’s description was “being held hostage by the federal government.” Assemblyman Lynn Hettrick, R-Gardnerville, said the government was “shoving this down our throats.”
To make the change more acceptable, Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, successfully pushed for an amendment to automatically repeal the state law change if the federal DUI law ever changes.
As of September, 44 states have lowered their DUI threshold to 0.08, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Not on their lists are Colorado, Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
In its efforts to see the standard lowered, MADD has argued that if every state passed a 0.08 law, about 500 lives would be saved each year. The organization also says studies show a 6-8 percent drop in alcohol-related traffic deaths in states that go to the 0.08 standard.
— Staff writer William Ferchland contributed to this report.