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Ever Stricter on Drunk Driving

Congress blocks tougher drunk-driving law - for now. But state efforts gather speed.

In a cramped, fluorescent-lit Durham, N.C., courtroom, Timothy Blackwell is on trial for first degree murder - only the second person in the country to be so charged in a drunk-driving accident.

While Mr. Blackwell's trial is unusual, it's no surprise that his case is being treated as it is here. Blackwell committed his crime in a state that prides itself in penalizing drunk drivers.

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Police here confiscate the cars of those caught driving under the influence. The licenses of repeat offenders are permanently revoked. And a state task force is now considering asking the legislature to reduce the legal blood-alcohol level to .07 - the lowest in the nation.

The effort appears to be working. Alcohol-related traffic deaths have fallen dramatically since 1990, from 43.5 percent to about 30 percent - some 10 percent below the national average.

With the US Congress locked in a debate over whether states should further punish drunk drivers, North Carolina offers a look at one of the strictest, most comprehensive anti-drunk-driving efforts in the country.

"Other states have pieces of legislation here and there," says Barry Sweedler at the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington. "But North Carolina is just so far out front."

While federal officials and groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) see the state as a model for how to handle drunk drivers, critics describe some parts of the North Carolina effort as excessive.

"They snare the social drinkers - and completely ignore the maniacs who are drinking heavily," says John Doyle, spokesman for the American Beverage Institute in Washington, referring to efforts to reduce the blood-alcohol level.

But for the most part, residents of this "Bible belt" state with a progressive tradition appear to support the efforts to raise the stakes on driving under the influence. The effort is a cornerstone of the administration of Gov. Jim Hunt (D), who is serving his fourth (nonconsecutive) term.

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Governor Hunt attributes his dedication to an incident that occurred in his youth. A drunk driver slammed head on into his car. He escaped unharmed, he says, because of the seat belts his father had installed, not a standard feature in cars at the time.

Hunt and other state leaders have been successful in defining drunk driving as a tough-on-crime issue rather than a social drinking debate. In a state that is immersed in car culture, the message that keeping drunk drivers off the road keeps residents safer has rung true.

"As the public has become more educated and informed about the issue, they are demanding that more be done," says North Carolina's Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker, who is also chairman of the Governor's Task Force on Driving While Impaired. "People believe that next to their homes, their cars are their castles. They want to be able to get in their cars and take their children and loved ones from one place to another without a drunk driver careening into them and wrecking their lives."

In 1993, state leaders began pushing for high standards on drinking and driving. That year, the blood-alcohol limit was lowered to .08, making North Carolina among the first states to set that limit. Today, 15 states use the .08 limit and bills to lower the limit to .08 have been introduced in 26 statehouses this year.

Congress is considering legislation to encourage this trend, but is split over whether to offer financial incentives or penalties to states that lower the blood-alcohol level for someone to be declared drunk. The Senate voted last month to force states to use the .08 level or lose federal highway money. But the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday kept similar legislation from being voted on in the full House. Differences between the House and Senate offerings are expected to be worked out before May 1.

North Carolina though has already gone beyond the .08 standard for youths. In 1995, the state passed a law requiring all drivers under 21 to be arrested if they had ingested any alcohol or drugs, no matter how little. Federal authorities have now mandated that states pass similar laws by October or lose federal highway money.

N. Carolina standard

Last year, the North Carolina statehouse focused its efforts on repeat offenders, allowing the state to drug test those arrested for driving while impaired (DWI), increasing the sentences for repeat offenders, and introducing vehicle seizure for anyone caught driving drunk and without a license.

Next year, state leaders plan to introduce even more measures, this time targeting commercial drivers. Any bus or truck driver who tests positive for any amount of alcohol or drugs in the bloodstream can be arrested under the new provision.

But the highest profile program in the state's anti-drunk-driving portfolio is a campaign dubbed "Booze it and Lose it." The program is a series of aggressive checkpoints - and one of the ways the state sets itself apart from what other states are doing.

Each weekend, the 32-foot BAT mobile (for blood-alcohol testing) travels the state setting up checkpoints with city, county, and sometimes campus or military law enforcement agencies. The white bus serves as a command center for police to complete paperwork, holds the equipment for breathalizer tests, and even a tiny office where a judge stays. In North Carolina a magistrate must rule that there is just cause before an arrest can be made.

Is it murder?

The most controversial aspect of the state's get tough on drunk drivers campaign may be what's happening in the courts. The first trial of a drunk-driving death as first-degree murder took place last year in Forsyth County, N.C. Both last year's case, in which the death penalty was sought, and the trial that began Monday of Mr. Blackwell, have legal scholars and public defenders questioning if the law is being stretched to send a message. The state appellate courts have yet to rule on last year's case, which was appealed.

"No one condones drinking and driving," says Stephen Glassroth, a Montgomery, Ala., attorney and a murder expert for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "But it's really hard to see ... [these cases as] first degree murder. I don't think any drunk driver is premeditating and determining to go out and kill someone."

Blackwell, who has been arrested six previous times for DWI, is accused of killing a preschooler last year with his truck. Blackwell is pleading not guilty to the murder charge.

To state leaders, though, the trials are a reinforcement of their work to curb drunk driving. "These trials," says Lt. Governor Wicker, "reflect the grass-roots effort that's out there to do something about drunk driving."

Staff writer Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this story.

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