The vote Wednesday was 62 to 32. If the states don't change their standards, they'll lose federal highway money. Currently, 15 states enforce .08 percent blood-alcohol levels, while the other 35 states set the drunk driving standard at a higher .10 percent.
The measure is part of a federal highway spending bill that still faces a test in the House and Senate before becoming final. The previous bill expired Sept. 30, and Congress approved a stopgap $5.5 billion measure to keep highway programs operating through May 1.
Under the proposed change, a 170-pound man with an empty stomach would be able to drink, in one hour, four drinks. Before, he would have been able to imbibe five drinks in an hour. (A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer or 5 ounces of wine.) A 137-pound woman would reach .08 percent after three drinks in an hour, sponsors said of the amendment said.
"I hope that the happy hour is over for drunk drivers," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., chief sponsor of the amendment along with Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio. "Drunk driving is a crime, like assault, like shooting at someone, like murder and it should be treated with the same severity."
Opponents of the measure expressed concern that the punishments were too harsh and said the federal government shouldn't be forcing standards on states.
During Tuesday's debate, not one senator came to the floor to oppose the amendment. But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., whose father was killed by a drunken driver, said he didn't support the measure because he didn't like any legislation that punished states for not going along with federally imposed mandates.
The issue is also likely to come up in the House when it takes up the highway bill, probably later this month.
Another opposing view comes from John Doyle, spokesman for the American Beverage Institute. He said the .08 percent limit would only serve to punish social drinkers. "That's not an impairment level, it's an arbitrary arrest level," said Doyle, who represents restaurants that serve alcohol.
In 1996, more than 17,100 people died in alcohol-related vehicle crashes nationwide. That is about 41 percent of all traffic deaths, officials estimate.
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