JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Senate’s plan to fight drunken driving — by placing a series of conditions on enforcement of its provisions — pleased no one Wednesday when it was presented to a House panel.
The beverage and restaurant industries lined up to oppose the plan, which would lower the blood-alcohol level at which driving is illegal from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent. They argued that such a reduction would do little to stop alcohol-related accidents because most fatalities involve habitual drinkers with blood-alcohol levels over 0.15 percent.
Anti-drunken driving advocates and state traffic safety officials also expressed skepticism toward the bill, which places a series of conditions on enforcement of the law. They said they support many of the concepts in the bill, including tougher penalties for repeat offenders, a ban on open containers in moving vehicles and the tougher standard for drunken driving.
But the bill’s exceptions and conditions make the bill unworkable, the advocates said. They urged the House Criminal Law Committee to strip off the conditions and set the level at which a driver is presumed drunk at 0.08 percent.
Committee Chairman Craig Hosmer, a Springfield Democrat, said after the hearing that he was inclined to replace the Senate plan with a simpler version similar to one that he sponsored and the committee approved March 1.
House leadership, however, has never scheduled that plan for floor debate, which allowed the Senate plan to become the vehicle for changes in drunken driving laws.
The Senate plan would make driving with 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content a violation of the law. But a driver whose blood-alcohol content was between 0.08 and 0.10 percent could be charged with drunken driving only if the driver were involved in an accident.
If such a driver were not involved in an accident, the person could be charged with “driving with excessive blood-alcohol content,” which would allow drivers to keep their licenses.
The Senate plan also prohibits enforcement of the 0.08 standard unless police see the driver violate another traffic law. That means a driver with a blood-alcohol level of 0.09 percent who was caught at a police checkpoint could not be charged with a crime.
Mike Boland, a lobbyist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said earlier this week that creating a lesser crime for driving with a 0.08 percent to 0.10 percent blood-alcohol level opens the door to excessive plea bargains.
Prosecutors, he said, are likely to allow drunken drivers to plead guilty to driving with excessive blood-alcohol content in exchange for dropping their court fight against the more serious charge of driving while intoxicated.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Paula Kanyo of MADD urged House members to set one drunken driving standard at 0.08 percent and to eliminate the checkpoint exception.
The changes would allow the state to receive about $3.2 million in federal funding for traffic safety programs.
Joyce Marshall, director of the state Division of Highway Safety, urged House members to ban open containers and stiffen penalties for repeat offenders. Without such changes, federal law requires the state to move $12 million in federal highway construction money into alcohol-related traffic safety programs.
Hosmer’s plan would presume that a driver is drunk if his blood-alcohol level was 0.08 percent or higher. On first offense, a drunken driver’s license would be suspended for 90 days, up from 30 days under current law.
The plan would create the crime of aggravated drunken driving, which would make it a felony to drive with a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 percent or more. It would ban open containers in motor vehicles. And drivers convicted of drunken driving three times could be sentenced to five to 15 years in prison.
John Britton, a lobbyist for Anheuser-Busch Inc., said the state should not ban an open container. Current law, which prohibits a person from imbibing while driving, is good enough, he said. He also opposed the change to 0.08 percent.
“The drivers causing the carnage on our highways have never been shown to be the .08 driver,” said Houston car accident attorney Hank Stout of sutliffstout.com
Mary Strate, a lobbyist for the Missouri Beer Wholesalers Association, said the 0.08 percent standard is unnecessary. Consumer education, the use of designated drivers and better traffic enforcement already has reduced drunken driving fatalities dramatically in the last two decades, she said.