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Legislature plans to tighten DWI laws

Queens drivers better think twice about having that last drink before getting behind the wheel with the state is making strides to lower the blood alcohol content levels for drunk driving.

The only hitch standing in the way of lowering the alcohol levels from .10 to .08 percent is the state Senate, which wants to include tougher penalties in the bill. The state Assembly has passed a bill lowering the levels and proposed a bill to crack down on repeat drunk driving offenders.

Failure to pass the bill to lower the blood alcohol level could cost the state millions of dollars in federal highway construction funds. The federal government will begin to cut New York state’s highway dollars if a bill is not passed before October 2003.

“We hope to get a negotiation going to work this out,” said state Assemblyman Mark Weprin (D-Bayside). “It makes financial sense as well as it is good government.”

He said if the state does not pass a bill to lower the alcohol level, New York stands to lose somewhere between $12 million and $49 million. Weprin said some compromise between the two bodies can be worked out to pass the bill.

“I have been a longtime proponent of this legislation and formerly was the lead sponsor on the bill,” said state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose). “This will further reduce the number of deaths each year on our roads and highways due to DWI. MADD and other advocacy groups have been working for this legislation for years. I am happy it finally passed.”

He said it is not sufficient to only lower the blood alcohol level. The bill the Senate passed includes several provisions that force drunk drivers into a mandatory treatment program, jail time and other penalties for repeat offenders.

Frank Gallagher, Padavan’s spokesman, said cutting down on the recidivism rate of drunk drivers is as important as lowering the alcohol levels. He said if the bill does not pass by October, the federal government will move 1.5 percent, or $7.8 million of New York’s highway construction budget, into highway safety programs.

He said he thinks the two sides will work out their differences and did not see how the two bodies could not figure out a compromise. “In my gut, I don’t see the bill not passing,” Gallagher said.

Some of the penalties included in the Senate bill are: five days in jail or 30 hours of community service for a repeat offender; 10 days in jail or 60 hours of community service for a third-time offender; and double the minimum fines from $1,000 to $2,500 for a repeat offender or from $2,000 to $5,000 for a three-time offender.

Paul Weber, a spokesman for state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), said the bill the Assembly passed on May 2 was sufficient enough to meet the federal governments standards. He said the Assembly agrees with stricter penalties for repeat offenders, but does not want the two bills tied together.

Weprin said the Assembly was in favor of strengthening the penalties for repeat offenders such as mandatory jail time and a provision against allowing plea bargaining.

He said not drinking and driving has become the societal norm and people will understand lowering the levels.

“It would be ridiculous to let this fall through the cracks,” Weprin said.

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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