With an already estimated $23 million loss in transportation funding for important safety improvements, the federal government is threatening to withhold $9.5 million more in 2004 from the state of Michigan unless the Legislature changes current drunk driving laws to comply with federal standards.

Michigan is one of 14 states that currently define intoxicated drivers at the .10 blood alcohol content level. In 2000, the federal government passed a law setting the legal level at .08 BAC and began withholding transportation funds from states that failed to comply.

Michigan legislators have been reluctant to give into federal pressure regarding the enforcement of drunk driving laws, but Gov. Jennifer Granholm said the current state budget crisis is forcing the state to act.

“Some people were concerned that (the new law) was a little strict,” Granholm spokeswoman Mary Detloff said. “But if we don’t change it, we will lose federal transportation funding, and we can ill afford to lose any federal money at this point.”

MDOT Communications Director Stephanie Litaker said that while the money received from the federal government will not seriously affect the state’s budget, the lack of funds would have an impact on improving highway safety.

“In terms of the bigger picture, $10 million is not a whole lot of money, but in terms of safety improvements it can go a long way,” Litaker said. “Knowing that improving safety for families and for motorists is one of Governor Granholm’s top priorities, we’re in need of money for safety. And given the budget right now, we can’t afford to turn away any money.”

The passing of the law may have little effect on how law enforcement agencies act with regard to drunk driving. Currently, driving with a BAC of .07 is illegal in Michigan, but the legal definition of intoxication stands at .10. Officials from the Michigan State Police Department said the law will most likely not affect how the police department operates.

But according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the measure could be significant in reducing the number of intoxicated drivers and in saving lives. States that have already instituted a .08 BAC law have reduced highway fatalities by 4 to 15 percent on average, MADD Michigan Executive Director Homer Smith said.

“In 2001, the fatalities for Michigan were 518, so if we see the average reduction of around 10 percent, that’s 50 lives saved,” Smith said.

“Michigan has done some really significant things in the past few years, including the repeat offender law, and this is just another step in strengthening the system,” he added.

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