By Lesley Weidenbener
Lesley Weidenbener, managing editor, The Statehouse File
INDIANAPOLIS – National traffic safety officials are urging states to reduce the amount that folks can drink before getting behind the wheel – but don’t look to Indiana lawmakers to get behind the idea anytime soon.
I remember when Indiana was one of the few remaining states with a legal blood alcohol level for driving of .10 percent.
Sen. Tom Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, had been battling for years to reduce that level to .08 percent, a level at which experts had by then agreed meant impairment for almost everyone.
But despite testimony from the families of people killed by drunk drivers, despite Wyss’ own tears over the issue, and despite pressure from federal officials, Indiana lawmakers just kept saying no.
By the time I started covering the General Assembly in 1996, Wyss’ emotional campaign for .08 was legendary. In fact, one of my first Statehouse assignments for The Journal Gazette, the morning newspaper in Fort Wayne, was to write about whether Wyss had started to hurt his own bill’s chance of passage.
I think it was true, although no one wanted to say it. But mostly, the bill failed year after year because bar and restaurant owners generally opposed it. They worried the law would cause customers to cut back on social drinking, which would hurt their businesses. And they claimed that social drinkers weren’t the cause of most drunk driving fatalities.
Every legislative district is filled with bars and restaurants and their owners not only vote but also contribute to campaigns. They’ve always been influential – and still are today.
But eventually, proponents of .08 won out.
As other states began to strengthen their drunken driving laws and bars and restaurants in those places didn’t collapse, the pressure mounted on Hoosier lawmakers. Then, the feds got serious about their efforts to “encourage” states to change their laws.
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced that it would withhold 2 percent of federal transportation funding – that equates to millions of dollars for roads – from states that didn’t have a .08 law.
In Indiana – the so-called Crossroads of America – that was enough.
Still, Wyss did have to take his name off the bill. In the end, it was then-Rep. Bob Kuzman, a Democrat and now a lobbyist, who was the author of the final bill. Wyss didn’t even come to the bill signing.
But he’ll always be remembered as the father of the .08 law for his tireless efforts on the issue.
Today, Wyss says that he believes the new federal effort to reduce the legal limit for drunk driving to .05 percent is a good idea. He says the research shows that almost everyone is too impaired at that level to be driving too. But he says he won’t be the guy behind the legislation to make the change.
“It’s an effort I would not undertake again,” Wyss told a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com.
It will probably be years before there’s a serious effort to move Indiana’s legal driving limit to .05 – and even then it will probably take more years to pass it. Those restaurant and bar owners are still persuasive, although the science and victims’ groups can be too.
Most persuasive, though, is money. So if federal officials are serious about forcing the change, they’ll likely have to threaten Indiana and other states again with federal highway funds. At a time when money for roads already is dwindling, that’s likely the only way to get the attention of a majority of Hoosier lawmakers.
Lesley Weidenbener is the managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.