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October 13, 2003 - Move to .08 in state laws affords treatment opportunities; legal limit for a motorist's blood alcohol content

As some states scrambled to avoid the threatened loss of federal highway money by adopting laws to lower the legal standard for driving under the influence, it became clear that some of these moves could lead to expanded treatment services for people with alcohol problems.

Pennsylvania and Louisiana were among the states that barely met an Oct. 1 deadline for adopting a .08 legal limit for a motorist's blood alcohol content or risking the loss of federal highway funds. Only five states now have a higher legal limit of. 10 (Colorado, Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey and West Virginia).

While states such as Louisiana and South Carolina were reported to adopt the change grudgingly, with some state leaders accusing the federal government of engaging in blackmail, others took a broader perspective, including in their new laws a variety of strategies designed to deter driving under the influence.

Pennsylvania's new statute, signed into law on Sept. 30 and taking effect the next day, is being seen as going beyond that of most other states in its comprehensive approach to treatment for drunk-driving offenders. The director of the state association of addiction treatment organizations refers to the new law as "a visionary plan for the state."

Under the law, passed by state legislators as Senate Bill 8, all drunk-driving offenders will be screened for alcohol and drug addiction. Assessment procedures and treatment services will be offered on a tiered basis depending on the offender's blood alcohol content at arrest and on his or her number of prior offenses.

While a spokesman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving(MADD) told ADAW that many states have included some treatment provisions in their .08 laws, he said the tiered system that Pennsylvania has adopted is unique.

Under the new law, most drunk-driving offenders will be eligible to enter an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) track, where they will be screened for addiction and referred to appropriate treatment services. Any ARD second offender or offender with a blood alcohol level above. 16 will have to be given a full drug and alcohol assessment prior to sentencing.

Treatment services will be available quickest to the most serious offenders; the law's treatment requirements will be phased in over a six-year period "to ensure that adequate treatment facilities are available," according to a summary of the House-Senate conference report for Senate Bill 8.

Sanctions such as driver's license suspensions also will be administered on a tiered basis under the Pennsylvania law, with the three tiers classified as .08 to .099, .10 to .159, and .16 or higher, according to the conference report summary.

Also, according to the summary, "In the overwhelming majority of cases, the offender will be required to pay for treatment. Unlike most criminal offenders who are sentenced to treatment, about one-third of [driving under the influence] offenders have the means to pay for their own treatment, either based upon their income level, through their insurance or by utilizing other assets."

Treatment community reaction

Deb Beck, president of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania (DASPOP), credits Pennsylvania lawmakers for going well beyond a move to change the legal limit for driving under the influence.

She particularly singled out State Rep. Rick Geist, chairman of the House Transportation Committee and sponsor of a companion House bill that was reconciled with the Senate bill that lawmakers finally adopted.

"There was a lockstep relationship between treatment and law enforcement on this," Beck told ADAW. She added that a couple of key supporters on the House side were new legislators who had formerly worked in prosecutors' offices.

"They realize that law enforcement can't do it by itself," she said.

Beck also likes that the new law includes several provisions that give treatment programs flexibility in dealing with drunk-driving offenders. For example, a treatment program may refuse to admit an offender if his or her family member (or, in extreme cases, his or her drug supplier) is already being treated in the program, Beck said.

In addition, offenders who violate program rules or do not "constructively engage in the treatment process," as the conference report summary states, can be discharged to the custody of a parole officer.

"If you violate the rules of a program, the program must have the right to do something, and something has to happen to you," Beck said.

She added that assessing all ARD offenders for addiction could have spillover benefits in areas such as improving unhealthy family relationships.

"It was thought that if assessment were part of DUI, a lot of societal ills might be picked up in the net, such as domestic violence," Beck said.

National picture

The MADD spokesman acknowledged that the threatened loss of federal highway money has been the primary motivator for some states that have recently lowered their legal limit to .08. About a dozen states have adopted .08 legislation in the past year, leaving only five holdouts nationally.

The spokesman said he knows of no states that are considering lowering their limit below .08 at this time. ".08 is what we want; we don't want anything lower than that," he said.

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