Bill Divides MADD, Century Council

Posted July 8, 2005 at 5:35pm

A battle is brewing between rival opponents of drunken driving over how to encourage states to more rigorously punish motorists who are highly intoxicated.

As House and Senate conferees try to put the final touches on a highway bill conference report this month, Mothers Against Drunk Driving is now accusing its former ally in the alcoholic beverage industry, The Century Council, of flip-flopping on its support for a provision in the Senate-passed highway bill. The provision would punish states for not adopting more stringent drunken driving laws.

The Senate version would force states to reallocate treasured road-building funds into safety programs if legislators don’t pass new laws targeting drivers whose blood-alcohol level is roughly twice the legal limit, or 0.15 percent, while the House would offer incentive grants on top of road-building money for states that pass such laws.

MADD supports the Senate language, while the industry-funded Century Council, along with state legislators and highway safety administrators, back the House version.

“We’ve had 20 years of experience telling us that [states] don’t change the law unless something significant happens at the federal level,” said former MADD President Wendy Hamilton. “These laws get passed once there’s tougher measures at the federal level.”

But Century Council CEO Ralph Blackman argued that states have barely had time to implement the changes required by the 1997 highway bill, in which they were required to pass tougher punishments against repeat drunken driving offenders.

The Senate language “impedes that progress and turns everybody around and makes them start from scratch,” Blackman said.

At the heart of the disagreement — which is so severe that it has caused MADD to break off collaboration with the Century Council — is MADD’s contention that the Century Council actually supported the provisions in the Senate in 2003 before reversing course this year.

“All along they’ve been saying that they … want these people taken off the roads, but now that we’re down to it, they’re saying another thing,” Hamilton said.

Aides to Sens. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the principal authors of the Senate language, agreed that the Century Council appears to have backed off its previous support.

“It’s pretty frustrating as we move to such a critical point in the negotiation of the bills,” said DeWine spokesman Jeff Sadosky.

Lautenberg chief counsel Dan Katz added, “The Century Council keeps moving the goalposts. It makes you wonder what the real agenda is.”

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) has sponsored similar legislation in the House.

A 2003 Century Council proposal for the highway bill reauthorization advocates changing current federal law to encourage states to treat first-time offenders with high blood alcohol concentration, or BAC, much the same way they treat repeat offenders. It also advocates laws to require impoundment and immobilization of the cars of high-BAC drunken drivers, as well as statutes requiring high-BAC and repeat offenders to install breathalyzers in their cars to prevent them from driving drunk.

But in a June 14, 2005, letter to House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), Century Council Chairman Susan Molinari writes that, “We oppose the Senate language … because it is a state mandate.”

Molinari, a former Republican House Member from New York, continued, “By broadening the audience affected … setting new penalties, and changing the transfer of funds formula, the Senate language will force a majority of states to go back into their vehicle codes and criminal codes to change numerous laws and regulations in order to comply with the Senate … language.”

But Blackman said his group has been consistent and that the differences between Century Council and MADD merely concern the way the federal government would encourage states to implement the changes.

Blackman said the Senate language would essentially require all 50 states to change their laws or else lose road-building funds. Under the 1997 law, the use of road-building funds is merely restricted to “hazard prevention” if states don’t pass anti-drunken driving laws.

“What we’ve tried to do is make it easier for [states] by providing flexibility,” said Blackman.

He cited, for example, the state of Wyoming, where the vehicle impoundment criteria in the Senate version would not be practical given that the state is mostly rural.

“In Wyoming, where there are no buses to take [offenders] anywhere, it really doesn’t solve your problems,” Blackman said. Instead, the Century Council’s recommendation for restricted driver’s licenses with breathalyzer ignition locks or electronically monitored home confinement might be a more suitable solution for rural areas.

Additionally, Texas lawmakers recently passed a law to deal with high-BAC drivers, but they would have to revise their law under the Senate’s guidelines, said Blackman.

Besides, Blackman said, the Century Council was the first group to alert lawmakers — and MADD — about the problem of hard-core drunk drivers. Indeed, the group compiled data showing that 58 percent of all alcohol-related traffic deaths in 1998 were attributable to high-BAC drivers, who generally have long-standing problems with alcohol and the law.

While the two groups have essentially broken off contact with each other, both Hamilton and Blackman said there might be room for compromise.

“I’m sure there’s some wiggle room on some of these provisions,” said Hamilton.

A Young spokesman said the issue is just one of many that have yet to be resolved by House and Senate conferees.