States with lax laws risk loss of highway construction funds
By JOE LAMBE and MATT
CAMPBELL The Kansas City Star
Missouri drunken drivers kill and maim at a horrifying rate, and critics say that for years state lawmakers have done little to stop them.
Now legislators face an ultimatum from Congress to toughen the state's laws against drunken driving or lose millions in federal highway construction money.
Across Missouri, anti-drunken-driving activists are demanding tougher laws and more innovative and effective prevention programs.
Yet in recent years, tougher laws failed repeatedly in the General Assembly.
"I would like to see the legislature more aggressive on this issue," said Sen. Morris Westfall, a Republican from Halfway who repeatedly has introduced tougher drunken-driving bills. "But at this point we haven't had the momentum or the active participation of the leadership of the legislature....
"I try not to get angry. I get very disappointed."
Three years ago, the General Assembly did tighten a law on teen-age drinking and driving. But otherwise, it consistently has left other options -- such as lowering the legal definition of drunkenness -- untouched.
Proponents of change argue that the problem is severe enough, especially in Kansas City, that it needs the legislature's attention.
In an extensive survey of state driving records, The Kansas City Star has found that Kansas City leads Missouri in drunken-driving accidents. The city also leads Missouri in the number of repeat drunken drivers. It has the most repeat offenders with 10 or more convictions.
Kansas City contributes heavily to Missouri's status as one of the worst places in the country for drunken driving. Only nine states and Washington, D.C., outrank Missouri in the percentage of traffic deaths that are alcohol-related.
By October of next year, though, Missouri must enact a handful of new laws or risk losing millions in federal highway construction money. The stakes will more than double after October 2002.
This year, the state lost about $3 million of those funds because it did not lower the legal definition of intoxication from 0.1 to .08 percent.
"I don't understand why the voters of this state would put up with not having safer highway laws and then getting money for it," said Paula Kanyo, director of the Missouri chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Kanyo said the climate in Jefferson City must change.
Along with changing the law, experts say there must be other steps. It will take new treatment programs, as well as vigorous enforcement and a committed public.
Some Missouri communities are experimenting on their own to curb drunken driving. Measures include using drug courts for repeat offenders, seizing cars of chronic drunken drivers and using tougher police surveillance. All techniques, proponents of change say, deserve a broader look.
With the deteriorating condition of state roads and looming federal penalties, Gov. Mel Carnahan is planning to push for stronger drunken-driving legislation in his last year as governor.
"A tougher stance toward drunk driving will be a priority for the governor next session," Carnahan spokesman Jerry Nachtigal said.
Missouri Rep. Craig Hosmer, a Democrat from Springfield, has pushed for tougher laws before and said he will again in the coming session. Bills to lower the intoxication level and to toughen the open container law already have been introduced.
"Over time, there is an education factor," Hosmer said. "There is a gradual shift every year."
Change in the capital
When Missouri last enacted a major drunken-driving law, in 1996, the aim was to forbid minors from drinking alcohol and driving. It was called zero tolerance.
But the federal government has encouraged -- and demanded -- additional steps that eventually could cost Missouri $28 million or more a year in highway construction money.
Missouri gave up about $3 million this year because the state Senate failed to lower the state's blood-alcohol limit to .08 percent. Kansas received $2.1 million more this year because it has the lower limit.
That $3 million was extra money offered as an incentive to Missouri. But Washington now threatens to take away an extra $12 million a year if legislators don't enact additional laws by October. That penalty doubles to almost $25 million in 2002.
Missouri must consider laws impounding the vehicles of repeat offenders, imposing tougher jail times for repeat offenders and forbidding any open containers of alcohol in vehicles.
If the measures fail, Missouri would still get the money, but it could not be used for much-needed highway construction. Congress has mandated that the money be used on safety programs.
Kansas also must consider stricter laws aimed at repeat offenders or risk losing up to $3.3 million in construction funds next year.
Carnahan's spokesman said the Missouri governor supports all of the measures: lowering the intoxication limit, banning open containers of alcohol in cars and both measures on increased penalties for repeat drunken drivers.
House Speaker Steve Gaw supports Carnahan. Senate Majority Leader Ed Quick of Kansas City backs changes as well.
Laws on repeat drunken drivers are backed not only by MADD, but also by The Century Council, a trade association funded by spirits distillers.
"We would suggest that (the penalties) could be even stronger," said Century Council Vice President Ralph Blackman.
Some lawmakers think the prospect of losing badly needed highway dollars will add impetus for change.
"The federal money will be added incentive for repeat drunk driving laws," Gaw said.
Other states can offer some lessons in reducing alcohol-related deaths.
A 1988 law in Maine set a blood-alcohol limit of .05 percent instead of .08 percent for adults who had been caught driving drunk. That lower limit applies for a year for first offenders and 10 years for repeat offenders.
In 1995, Maine changed the .05 percent limit to any measurable alcohol for those who had driven drunk once before. A second-time offender caught driving after only one drink could lose his or her license for a year.
In the six years after 1988, studies show, the number of fatal accidents involving repeat drunken drivers in Maine fell 25 percent.
Experimental programs under way at several places in Missouri show how localities are using punishment and treatment to prevent drunken driving.
Authorities are doing everything from authorizing confiscation of repeat drunken drivers' cars to using the state's harshest penalties for drivers who kill. Too, there are a number of programs, some in prisons and others in courts, to help repeat drunken drivers conquer their addictions.
In the end, MADD officials say, there must be more pressure on politicians from a better-educated public.
Karolyn Nunnallee, national MADD president, is the mother of a 10-year-old girl killed in the nation's deadliest drunken-driving crash -- a fiery head-on collision in Kentucky that killed 27 persons in a church bus. The drunken driver in that case was released this year after serving less than 10 years in prison.
Nunnallee urged more support for tougher laws at all levels of government.
"If this country is serious about winning the war on drunken driving," she said, "we've got to do things to be aggressive."
Many believe the best prescription for drunken drivers is a mix of stern rules and therapy.
"I think there are times when they need to go to prison, absolutely," said Rick Knight, an assistant Jackson County prosecutor. "But (the answer must be) some combination of treatment and incarceration.... It's a disease. It truly is."
The Star's Will Sentell contributed to this report.