Last week the state of New York joined a national trend worth following. Legislation signed by Gov. George Pataki (R) would, for the first time, authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend the driver's license of a minor arrested while driving with even a scant amount of alcohol in his or her system. The legislation is widely known as the zero-tolerance law.
New York is the 34th state in the nation to pass such a bill, and if President Clinton and Congress have their way, the others will quickly follow suit. The incentive is strong: Congress passed legislation last year requiring the Department of Transportation to withhold highway funds from states that do not enact zero-tolerance laws.
New York's law, which takes effect in November, orders that anyone under 21 caught driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.02 percent or higher lose their license for six months and pay a $125 fine for a first offense. A second offense would result in a license suspension of 12 months or until the person turns 21, whichever is longer. Under current state law, there is no penalty for a person under 21 caught driving with a blood-alcohol level under 0.07 percent.
The legislation is important for several reasons. Drunken-driving deaths rose last year for the first time in a decade, according to a study made public this week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Young people ages 18 to 20 are disproportionately involved in alcohol-related traffic crashes. And, according to traffic-safety and alcohol-prevention advocates, studies show that zero-tolerance measures have reduced the number of these accidents.
Most important, the minimum drinking age across the country is 21. If a young person breaks the law by consuming alcohol - even if it's "just one beer" or a glass of wine - and then climbs into the driver's seat of a car, there should be consequences. States that don't impose a penalty for an individual whose blood-alcohol level is under 0.07 percent are sending a mixed message. A zero-tolerance law neither stigmatizes young people nor violates their rights. It's simply good policy.