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Administration Balks At Grants For Tough Drunken-Driving Laws

June 29, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A bill that would provide grants to states which enact tough drunken- driving laws won the backing Wednesday of state highway officials, but was criticized by the Reagan administration as too inflexible.

The measure, introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., would provide grants to states that adopt laws allowing a police officer to take away a drunken driver’s license on the spot and issue a notice of license suspension or revocation. A judge would make the final determination.

″If we can save 2,000 lives by spending $10 million or $20 million in seed money, is it too much?″ Lautenberg asked. ″What we’re really asking is - are we willing to invest federal dollars to help save lives?″

His bill would tap Highway Trust Fund money for grants to states to set up alcohol abuse programs. It was endorsed by several state highway officials during a hearing by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

The panel also is considering a second drunken-driving bill, introduced by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., that authorizes the Transportation secretary to actually withhold routine federal highway funds from states that do not enact the license suspension and revocation procedures.

Lautenberg is a co-sponsor of the Reid bill but said at Wednesday’s hearing that he would prefer ″using the carrot first, then the stick.″

″If the incentives aren’t enough, let’s impose sanctions,″ he said. ″One way or the other, we want to get to the same goal, and that is to save lives by getting the drunken driver off the road.″

But nearly all the witnesses argued that sanctions do not always work and that they preferred the grant program.

″Sanctions, very frankly are counterproductive,″ said Ronald Fiedler of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. ″They decrease funds for other highway safety programs. We support the incentive approach.″

George Reagle, associate administrator for traffic safety programs for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, spoke out against both drunken-driving bills, contending that many of the provisions in the Lautenberg bill duplicate existing law and are less flexible.

Specifically, Reagle complained that the Lautenberg measure gives states too little time to get the accused drunken drivers to court. He said that the Reagan administration believes 45 days is a reasonable requirement, while the Lautenberg bill requires the case go to a judge within 15 days.

″We strongly encourage the states to adopt administrative systems for license suspensions,″ Reagle told the committee. ″It is our view, however, that the bill may accomplish little that has not already been accomplished.″

By contrast, Norma Phillips, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said her group supports both pieces of legislation. ″Administrative revocation of driver’s licenses,″ she said, ″is MADD’s number one legislative priority.″