Drivers in New Jersey now have even more reason to think twice about getting behind the wheel after a night of drinking.
On Jan. 20, Gov. James E. McGreevy signed into law Assembly bill 682, which lowered the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) used to identify a drunk driver from .10 percent to .08 percent.
The law, which was first introduced to the assembly Jan. 8, 2003, was required to conform to federal law that withheld federal highway funds from any state that did not lower its drunk driving blood concentration to .08.
New Jersey had been slated to have $7.2 million in highway funds withheld for failing to comply with the law.
While the reduction in blood alcohol content is the major aspect of the law, it also changes the penalties for drunk driving in the state, Kathleen Sheedy, public defender for the Borough of Freehold, said.
“Before this law, everything at or above .10 resulted in a six month to one year suspension of license,” Sheedy added. Other penalties that previously accompanied a drunk driving conviction included large insurance surcharges and a mandatory visit to the Intoxicated Driver Resource Center.
Under the new law, penalties are structured differently. A person whose BAC is between .08 and .10 will have his or her license suspended for three months, while one whose BAC is between .10 and .16 will have his or her license suspended for between seven months and one year. For a BAC of over .16, a driver will lose his or her license for between nine months and one year.
According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, 299 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes in New Jersey in 2002, which made up 39 percent of the 773 traffic fatalities that year.
For 15 to 20 year-olds in 2000, the last year for which data is available, 29.6 percent of drivers in fatal crashes had a BAC of over .10, the old limit, while 12.2 percent had a BAC of between .01 and .09.
But with the Times of Trenton reporting that the average BAC of drivers charged with driving under the influence (DUI) is .17, some wonder what sort of effect the new law will have on drunk drivers.
Sheedy said it will increase the number of individuals who are convicted of drunk driving, instead of the lesser and almost always included offense of reckless driving.
Sheedy added, “This is going to make a difference to the social drinker, who, after two or three glasses of wine can reach .08,” but not the higher .10 standard.
But police officials say that the new law will do little to change their jobs. Patrolman Frank Masterson of the Ewing Township Police Department said that while the numbers have changed, the way he spots drunk drivers hasn’t.
“We look for things like weaving and going way under the speed limit,” Masterson said. “That won’t change.”
But while he said that he doesn’t know if the amount of individuals arrested for DUI will increase with the new numbers, his experience shows that it may not make a difference.
“In my experience most people blow (on the breathalyzer used to measure BAC) above a .1,” Masterson said.
Joseph Hadge, program coordinator of the College’s Alcohol/Drug Education Program (ADEP), said that the law will make a difference by increasing knowledge about drinking and driving and encouraging behavior changes, but he emphasized that for most students it is personal values, not the law, that keep them from getting behind the wheel after drinking.
“Most students support designated drivers,” Hadge said. “The challenge is that some students make bad choices and those choices are costly.”
He also criticized the media for portraying college campuses as a place where all students are drunk. Most students, he said, using the phrase found on posters around campus, are making smart choices.