3 - Key Participants in the .08 Debate

This section identifies the key players who participated in the .08 per se debate in the six states that were studied, and highlights their roles in the political and legislative process, as reported to project staff.

Executive Officials

Participants in the .08 per se debate agreed that the Governor was a very important player in the legislative process -- no legislator wanted to fight for passage of a law only to have it vetoed by the Governor. In all six states studied, there was a promise from the Governor that he would not veto the .08 per se bill if it reached his desk. In all but one of the states, the Governor publicly endorsed the measure. State Governors were sometimes criticized because their support of the legislation seemed rather passive.

Executive leadership often came from state executive officials other than the Governor. In Texas, for example, the Lieutenant Governor was credited with providing invaluable support to MADD and others who lobbied for passage of .08 per se. The Texas Lieutenant Governor is also the President of the state Senate, and is thus influential in both the executive and legislative branches of state government.

In Illinois, the .08 per se movement was led by the office of the Secretary of State. It is important to note, however, that the duties and responsibilities of the Secretary of State in Illinois are quite different from those of his or her counterparts in most other states. The Illinois Constitution stipulates that the Secretary of State's duties shall include managing all aspects relating to motorists and vehicles, as well as educating the public about issues such as drunk driving and traffic safety. For almost all other states, it is the Secretary of Transportation or the Registrar of Motor Vehicles who is charged with these responsibilities.

It was repeatedly pointed out to project staff that the Lieutenant Governor in Texas and the Secretary of State in Illinois were both elected, not appointed, executive branch officials. As politicians, they were concerned about re-election, campaign issues and accountability to the constituents who brought them to office. Rather than always receiving and implementing directives from the Governor, they set their own priorities and pursued their own agendas. Moreover, they enjoyed almost as much name recognition and media exposure as the Governor, and they had at their disposal a full-time staff of legislative assistants with considerable expertise in state politics, as well as direct and frequent access to state legislators.

The Governor's Highway Safety Representative and the Traffic Safety Office

Legislators and advocacy groups frequently requested and received information, data and testimony from the staff at their respective Governor's Office of Traffic Safety. It should be pointed out, however, that the highway safety representatives' ability to deploy resources in support of .08 per se legislation was contingent on their Governor's approval.

Legislators

Legislation to enact .08 per se was sponsored by Republicans and Democrats alike. In some states, unlikely alliances were formed among Republican and Democratic legislators; though they differed on most other political issues, they found common ground in their backing of .08 per se. It was reported to project staff that a common trait among effective legislation sponsors was their ability and willingness to enlist support from fellow legislators in both legislative chambers and both major political parties.

Advocates of .08 per se believed that support from the President of the state Senate and the Speaker of the state House was important for the following reasons. First, the Senate President and the House Speaker controlled the legislative agenda of their respective chambers. They also decided which committees would consider the proposed legislation. Supportive Presidents or Speakers put pressure on committee members to approve a bill promptly, or in some states, they were able to bypass the committee altogether and bring the legislation to a general vote on the floor. Finally, in most cases, the Senate President and the House Speaker were also the leaders of the chamber's majority party, and had considerable influence on the votes of their political caucuses.

For similar reasons, the committee chairperson was also considered to be a key player in the legislative process. Typically, .08 per se bills were assigned to a Transportation Committee, if the chamber had one; otherwise the bill went to the committee in charge of criminal justice issues. Committee chairs who were allies of the .08 per se movement ensured that hearings on the issue were conducted promptly, and worked to convince other legislators within the committee to vote in favor of the measure. Allegedly, committee chairs who were against .08 per se attempted to bury the bill and stop it from reaching the floor.

Finally, some of our contacts believed that a legislator's professional background significantly influenced his or her stance on the issues. For example, many legislators in the six states studied were also professional lawyers and, as is further discussed below, criminal defense attorneys in general were opposed to .08 per se laws. In cases where the committee considering the .08 per se bill was comprised mostly of defense lawyers, the fight to obtain passage of the legislation was reported to be an uphill battle. On the other hand, the pre-disposition toward .08 per se of other legislators with backgrounds in the medical professions generally seemed to be more favorable.

Lobbyists

Experienced local lobbyists were considered to be a great asset for the following reasons. They were thoroughly familiar with the state's political process and legislative procedures. They knew who the key legislators were on which key committees, and they understood the background and interests of these legislators. Both advocates and opponents of the bill believed that a good lobbyist could anticipate a state representative's reaction to a particular bill or issue, and he or she would know who the other party would most likely approach for support. Lobbyists were also believed to be instrumental in finding supporters and opponents with a good understanding of the issue who would be willing to vocalize their support and apply pressure to their respective caucuses.

Volunteer organizations usually were not able to appoint a full-time staff member to promote their issues all the way through the different stages of legislation. At the same time, these grassroots organizations were often unable to afford the costs associated with hiring a professional from a lobbying firm. In two of the six states studied, MADD was able to hire a paid lobbyist to assist them in the legislative process, using funding from grants the organization received from General Motors Corporation. In all six states, the alcohol industry had a professional lobbyist to represent their interests. Other private institutions, including insurance companies and restaurant associations, sometimes sent lobbyists to the state capitol to present their stance on the .08 issue.

It should be noted that lobbyists often represented their clients in a variety of matters, and they were often empowered to negotiate with legislators to give priority to certain issues over others. For example, it was suggested that lobbyists for the alcohol industry negotiated with legislators to accept passage of .08 per se, in exchange for a favorable vote in another, presumably more pressing legislation piece. Although project staff found no evidence of this, the reverse situation could potentially be true as well: a lobbyist representing the .08 movement could negotiate with legislators to allow passage of .08 per se and in return drop demands for other bills that seem to be of lesser importance or priority.

Grassroots Organizations

Advocates of .08 per se believed that grassroots organizations added a more personal and emotional element to what was otherwise a formal and "cold" legislative process. Volunteers in state and local chapters encouraged residents to voice their support of .08 per se by writing or calling their state senators and representatives. In particular, local DWI victims were encouraged to contact their representatives, so that legislators could "attach a name and a face" to the bill they were considering. Sometimes, crash victims were escorted to the state capitol to testify at hearings. When the legislature was scheduled to vote on .08 per se in Illinois, MADD erected a large billboard on the lawn of the state capitol. The billboard contained photographs of children who had been victims of drunk drivers.

Though by no means the only one, MADD was by far the most widely recognized grassroots organization in the .08 per se debate. Legislators in all states were very familiar with MADD and their agenda, and many had seen MADD successfully lobby in favor of anti-DWI legislation in the past. Although MADD was not always the principal driving force for the .08 initiative, in all six states it was without a doubt one of the coalition's most active members.

Other grassroots groups that formed part of state .08 coalitions included the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists (AAIM), Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD)17, Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID), PTA (Parent/Teacher Association) groups, as well as other organizations representing the interests of senior citizens and veterans.

Like MADD, many of these grassroots groups are in fact chapters of a nationwide organization. Staff at the national level were available to assist state-level .08 initiatives with data, information, and perhaps some funding. National MADD headquarters staff often traveled to and testified at state legislatures during .08 per se hearings.

Private Corporations

Insurance companies such as Allstate Insurance, Kemper Insurance Group, Nationwide Insurance, and USAA Insurance, among others, have publicly expressed their support for .08 per se laws. The American Automobile Manufacturers Association, Daimler Chrysler, Ford Motor Company and General Motors have also endorsed the .08 BAC limit. One of our contacts suggested that the .08 per se coalition in his state derived a great deal of strength from the support of large corporations such as Daimler Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. In his view, many legislators hold the belief that the private sector "knows best" and that government should emulate the private sector (e.g., in policies concerning employee benefits or affirmative action). If the CEOs of Fortune 500 corporations support .08 per se because they believe it is in the best interest of their employees, then legislators would be more likely to be swayed to vote in favor of the measure.

Private corporations assisted the .08 movement in a variety of ways. In Washington State, the insurance companies used their corporate lobbyists to argue in favor of the legislation. In Illinois, a major insurance company conducted a poll of voters in the state to examine their support for lowering the state's limit from .10 to .08 BAC. In another example of public and private cooperation, the office of the Secretary of State in Illinois formed a partnership with a taxi cab company in the greater Chicago area to equip all of their vehicles with stickers displaying the slogan "Illinois–A Safer State with .08," as well as the related message "If you're drinking, who's driving? We will!" The cab company paid to print the stickers, which were designed by the Secretary of State's office. The partnership was announced in December 1997 and the taxi company planned to display the stickers throughout 1998. This awareness campaign effectively brought the new .08 law to the attention of the media and the general public. It can be assumed that the cab company also gained media exposure and public recognition in exchange for their participation in this joint venture.

Alcohol and Hospitality Industries

Beer, wine, and spirits wholesalers, distributors, retailers and serving establishments generally opposed .08 per se legislation. Establishments serving or selling alcoholic beverages typically joined efforts through a statewide membership association. This allowed members to pool their resources together, and hire at least one full-time lobbyist to represent their interests in the state legislature. Like other industries and special interests groups, alcohol beverage associations at the state level often made regular campaign contributions to state senators and representatives.

In all six states studied, the state's Restaurant Association also opposed the .08 per se legislation. However, in some states, their opposition was passive and their role was secondary to that of the local alcohol beverage association. In some states where .08 per se was approved, the Restaurant Association cooperated with government agencies after the fact, to educate the public about the new illegal limit.

At the national level, the American Beverage Institute (ABI), a coalition of restaurants and on-premise retailers, has been fighting .08 per se legislation at both the state and the federal levels. It should be noted that the ABI is a national organization, and does not maintain local chapters at the state level. In recent years, the Institute has begun to send lobbyists and other personnel to the states to assist in the fight against .08 per se.

Law Enforcement

In all six study sites, law enforcement agencies formed part of the coalitions that supported .08 per se legislation. However, project staff found that in reality law enforcement officials were often divided on this issue, and both supporters and opponents of .08 per se were able to find police officers who would publicly take their side in the debate.

Opponents of the measure within the law enforcement community claimed that the law would result in an increase in DWI arrests, and that current resources in terms of personnel and jail space would not be sufficient to meet this increase. Supporters argued that .08 per se would reduce the time that police officers spent in the courtroom, especially in cases of offenders with "borderline" situations where the defense attorney was trying to dismiss the case for an individual who registered a .10 BAC. (See the following chapter on opponents' arguments and supporters' responses to those arguments.)

In some states, police officers aided the .08 movement by providing testimony at committee hearings. In at least one study site, police officers invited legislators to find out for themselves how their driving performance would be affected at .08 per se, by organizing and hosting a controlled "drunk driving test." (For more details on this activity, see Chapter 5.)

Legal System

In at least one state, the defense attorneys were deemed by .08 supporters to be more of an obstacle to passage of .08 per se than the liquor lobby. As noted above, many legislators in the six states studied were professional lawyers themselves, and many of them practiced as defense attorneys when the state legislature was not in session. Even among those legislators who no longer practiced law, their ties to the state's bar association remained relatively strong and influential during their tenure in the House or Senate. In general, the defense bar opposed .08 per se because it "penalizes social drinkers and makes criminals out of them." Critics maintained that defense attorneys opposed the measure because per se laws erode their capability to obtain dismissals of DWI charges against their clients. (See next chapter on opponents' arguments and supporters' responses to those arguments.)

For their part, prosecutors and district attorneys were greatly divided over the .08 issue. Some district attorneys and prosecutors became vocal advocates of the lower BAC limit, and even testified at committee hearings. However, as in law enforcement agencies, some were concerned that the new bill would be a litigation nightmare for the courts, and that the increased workload would overwhelm the criminal justice system. Some of our contacts suggested that prosecutors were not so much against .08 per se, but rather they were using this opportunity to bargain for passage of other legislation. For example, in some states "deferred prosecution" laws18 give offenders a strong incentive to plea bargain, thus saving time and resources for the courts. Recently, however, additional legislation has been enacted to limit or even eliminate deferred prosecution as a sentencing option for DWI offenders. In some states, prosecutors were willing to accept the lower BAC limit, so long as deferred prosecution was reinstated or reemphasized as a viable sentencing option for DWI offenders.

Media

In all states studied, there was significant coverage of the .08 debate in the media. A large number of editorials appeared in local publications exhorting state senators and representatives to support the bill. In one state, the defeat of the .08 per se legislation through the actions of a single senator resulted in an onslaught of negative publicity that extended well beyond the adjournment of the legislative session. In Washington State, the media's coverage was instrumental in giving one tragic DWI crash a high profile, and keeping the issue in the forefront of their news reporting. This, in turn, forced the State's politicians to turn their attention to impaired driving issues and appropriate measures.

In addition, legislators used their contacts in the media to discuss the issues and present their views. In some states, supporters of the legislation appeared on local talk shows. Executive officials in some states held press events to highlight the problem of impaired driving and propose .08 per se as part of the solution. Through the public media, victims of drunk drivers made appeals to lawmakers and the public to draft stronger legislation to prevent more DWI-related tragedies. All in all, our contacts were in agreement in their belief that the media played a crucial role in making impaired driving an object of immediate concern for the public and for legislators.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

NHTSA personnel provided information, data, reports and related assistance to legislators, advocacy groups, and the media in connection with .08 per se and other legislation concerning traffic safety issues. Supporters of .08 per se also frequently solicited expert testimony from the staff at NHTSA regional and national offices during committee hearings. NHTSA also assisted advocates through its connections to other traffic safety and alcohol experts in the medical community, academia and the government.

Other Participants

Local Governments 

In many instances, county, city, town and village governments joined the state's .08 coalition, or indicated their support of the legislation by issuing a written resolution. City council and village board members also exhorted their local senators and representatives to vote in favor of the measure. 

In one of the study sites, several associations representing city and county interests were opposed to .08 per se on the grounds that the law might prove to be an "unfunded mandate." In recent years, a number of states have passed unfunded mandate laws, which prevent state government from issuing mandates to local communities unless the directive does not require additional funding, or alternately, the State provides adequate financial support to implement the new law. A few local communities were concerned about the financial impact on their law enforcement agencies and corrections facilities, due to an alleged increase in DWI arrests following the enactment of the law, and thus opposed .08 per se

Public Health and Medical Community 

Associations that represent nurses, physicians, surgeons, emergency medical personnel and others endorsed .08 per se in all six states that were studied. Often, members of the medical and public health communities were available to discuss the effects of alcohol at .08 per se during committee hearings. Nationwide groups such as the American Medical Association and the American Association of Neurological Surgeons also publicly endorsed BAC limits lower than .10 per se

Alcohol Treatment Community 

In one state, the treatment community opposed an entire package of legislation targeting drunk drivers, including .08 per se. As in the case of the district attorneys, it is possible that treatment centers were not philosophically opposed to the lower BAC limit, but rather they objected to limitations placed on the deferred prosecution sentencing option for DWI offenders (see above). One of our contacts, a supporter of .08 per se, believed the issue was an economic one: allegedly, the treatment community supported the lack of change in the existing DWI prosecution and sentencing system in order to protect the substantial revenue they received for handling the treatment of DWI offenders. Another supporter of the .08 limit believed that treatment centers were simply arguing that alcoholism is an enduring problem that often requires multiple phases of treatment, and that deferred prosecution was a successful tool in getting those problem drinkers into treatment. So most proponents of .08 per se believed that the treatment community was not opposed to a lower BAC limit as such, but rather to limitations on, or the possible elimination of, the deferred prosecution option for DWI offenders. 

The treatment community as opposition was encountered in only one of the states that were used as sites for this study. 

Truckers' Unions 

A concern sometimes set forth by opponents of .08 was that the measure would unfairly target the blue-collar worker who goes to the local tavern after work for a few beers. In some states, the support of the local Truckers Association served to deflect this argument. Commercial truck drivers have been operating for years under a federal BAC limit of .04, and if they were able to comply with the .04 limit, then it could be expected that others would accept and comply with an illegal limit of .08. The American Trucking Association at the national level has also endorsed the measure. 

Religious Groups 

In some states, religious groups were involved in support of the .08 movement. Ministers generated awareness among their congregations by trying to promote an interest in legislative affairs. They motivated churchgoers to be informed citizens, and to approach their local senators and representatives to ask their stance on drunk driving issues. Occasionally, an article on DWI would appear in a local church publication. Religious leaders expressed willingness to be of assistance to the .08 movement in an indirect manner; however, they warned against religious organizations taking a lead role on this issue, for two reasons. First, they did not want to be accused of violating the separation of church and state. Second, a movement led by the church could be dismissed by the public as a fundamentalist drive to return to prohibition. 

Century Council 

Funded by America's leading distillers, the Century Council is a national, non-profit organization dedicated to reducing drunk driving and illegal underage drinking problems. The Council's official stance toward the .08 per se issue has been neutral. However, the Council teamed up with MADD, the Texas Medical Association and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, to sponsor a survey of Texas voters in March 1999 regarding several traffic safety issues, including .08 per se. Researchers concluded that 59% of Texas voters favored lowering the state's illegal BAC to .08. As expected, younger voters were less supportive than older voters. Adults with children under the age of 18 were also much more likely to support the measure, compared to adults without children.

Interestingly, some of contacts were under the impression that the Century Council was not neutral on the .08 issue; they thought the Council publicly supported the lower limit. A representative from the Century Council emphasized this was not the case. This mistaken impression is probably the result of the Council's educational campaign launched after the bill's passage to promote public awareness regarding the new illegal limit.


  1. Formerly known as Students Against Driving Drunk.
  2. The laws governing deferred prosecution and/or deferred adjudication vary from state to state. In general, these laws allow misdemeanor offenders to be placed on probation for one or two years, and if the offender satisfies the conditions of probation, then the charge does not appear in the criminal record as a "conviction."
  3. In April 2001, the Century Council announced that it will support a comprehensive approach to fighting drunk driving, including a BAC limit of .08 when accompanied by meaningful BAC education. This press release is available on the Council's website: www.centurycouncil.org.