New blood-alcohol policy effective immediately



Prior to Aug. 1, Minnesota held a unique status among the United States. Now it has joined all 49 other states in lowering the legal alcohol-concentration limit for drivers from .1 to .08 percent.

“I think it’s about time,” said St. Paul City Council President Kathy Lantry. “How can you be against it when it might save lives?”

“I fully support it,” agreed Kent Dotas, Oakdale City Council member. “I don’t have any issues with it — I think it’s good legislation.”

The law’s projected ability to save lives has many people across the Twin Cities celebrating.

The lower legal limit, now embraced by all 50 states, will save 500 to 600 lives a year nationally, said Dorothy Chaney, state executive director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“When it went to .08 in Wisconsin, traffic fatalities went down 14 percent. Lives will be saved as a result of this,” Chaney said.

There’s little doubt that alcohol-related accidents will decline as a result of the law. The question for some, however, is whether alcohol sales will also decline.

Who will pay?

“I don’t think it will affect our business too much,” said Dan Furlong, owner of Furlong’s Liquor in Oakdale. “But the bars and restaurants will be hurting.”

If anything, Furlong said liquor store sales might increase as people become afraid to drink while out at public establishments.

“I do think it’s kind of unfair to the regular person who just wants to have one or two drinks, and now they have to worry,” Furlong said.

Bar owners are worried about the impact on their business.

“It won’t affect business right now,” said Scott Dornfeld, owner of Schwietz’s Salon in St. Paul. “But if they keep lowering it in the future, people would be afraid to even have a drink.”

Dornfeld agrees that saving lives is the most important thing. However, he said he feels the new law is legislating to him how he should run his business, especially on the heels of the smoking ban controversy. The law also strikes him as one-sided.

“You’ll see them lower the limit, and experiment in that direction,” Dornfeld said. “But you’ll never see them raise the limit.”

Other bar owners are similarly uneasy about the new policy.

“It’s a bad law,” said Jim Johnson, owner of Obb’s Bar in St. Paul. “They’re trying to hang the bars out to dry.”

Johnson feels that lowering the legal limit by .02 percent doesn’t address the problem of “hard-core” drunk drivers.

“It’s the chronic guys who are drinking 10 to 12 drinks and then trying to drive that you worry about,” Johnson said. “This isn’t going to stop them. All this does is scare people who just have one or two drinks.”

Chaney disagreed. “Enacting .08 doesn’t take away any one’s social liberties. The .08 is science-based — at .08, someone is impaired.”

Positive potential?

The North St. Paul Police Department welcomes the policy as a natural extension of its efforts to increase public safety.

“We are the last of 50 states to adopt it,” said North St. Paul Police Chief Dwight Stewart. “It’s something we in law enforcement have been supporting for quite some time, since the mid 1990’s.”

Stewart doesn’t anticipate the new policy will pose any enforcement problems because all the same rules of police procedure still apply.

“The goal isn’t to increase enforcement, but to increase compliance. If we can increase compliance, then the law has done its job,” Stewart said.

The St. Paul police department sent out training bulletins, alerting officers to the new situation, but does not anticipate any additional difficulties in enforcing the law. The department is asking officers to continue to aggressively pursue drunk drivers, as always.

Officials are hopeful the new legal limit will make that pursuit easier. Lowering the legal limit also guarantees Minnesota about $17 million in federal funding for state and local roads.

All parties agree, the greatest impact the law will have is with public perception.

“The law is trying to raise awareness,” Stewart said. “They’re hoping its going to reduce traffic fatalities — if it does that, thank goodness.”

“People’s perception is that the legal limit has lowered. Now people think they can legally drink less,” Chaney said. “Hopefully what this means is that people will think before they drink.”

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