Beginning Friday, anyone younger than 21 who downs just one beer in an hour and then gets behind the wheel will face a $500 fine and six-month driver’s license suspension under Virginia’s “zero-tolerance” for underage drinkers, part of the state’s tough new drunken-driving law.
Older motorists are also targeted by the new law, which will make driving with a blood-alcohol percentage of .08 illegal. The current standard in Virginia is .10.
For virtually anyone, a blood-alcohol percentage of .02 happens with just one drink in an hour, according to information provided by the Automobile Association of America.
“What that means is, in reality, if you are under 21 and have any measurable percentage of alcohol in your system, you are going to be charged,” said Peninsula resident Brenda Vaccarelli, co-chairman of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD. Vaccarelli’s sister was killed by a drunken driver. “If you are under 21, alcohol isn’t an option, or shouldn’t be, if you abide by the law.”
Because of the lower limit across the board, an average of 2,266 more motorists each year could be charged with drunken driving, according to figures provided by the Virginia Division of Forensic Science.
From 1990 to 1992, about 6,800 motorists who were stopped and tested had blood-alcohol contents of .08 or .09. Those people would be considered drunk by the standard that takes effect Friday, but not by the current standard.
Last year, more than 35,000 people were convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol in Virginia, according to the Division of Motor Vehicles.
For a 160-pound person, four drinks in an hour will push the driver past the legal limit, according to AAA figures. An underage drinker could be fined and have his or her license suspended for virtually any blood-alcohol content, but could also face a full drunken-driving charge if the level reaches .08.
The law was signed April 6 by Gov. George F. Allen.
“It’s MADD’s goal and my goal that if one impaired driver is removed from the road . . . one member of your family may live to enjoy the rest of the summer and the rest of their life,” said local MADD chairman Mike Goodove of Virginia Beach.
Virginia will be one of only 10 states to enforce a .08 standard, which will also be the benchmark for drinking boaters.
The new law also provides for the impoundment of a driver’s car for 30 days – if the driver’s license is suspended from an earlier alcohol-related offense. A court could add another 90 days to the impoundment if the driver is convicted.
One key part of the new legislation – curbside revocation of a driver’s license – won’t take effect until Jan. 1, 1995. Starting then, motorists who refuse a breath test, or who fail one, will have their licenses revoked by the arresting police officer for seven days.
“Without a doubt, people are going to know, `I will lose my license if I drive drunk,’ ” said Lillian DeVenny of Virginia Beach, a founder of Virginians Opposing Drunk Driving. “And drunk will be .08.”
DeVenny’s 21-year-old daughter, Carrie, was killed 15 years ago by a drunken driver.
Also, beginning Jan. 1, motorists will no longer have the option of requesting a blood test instead of a breath test. The first parts of the law take effect in the middle of what the DMV categorizes as the deadly summer driving season. Last year, from May through September, 368 people died on the state’s roadways. Almost half the fatalities were alcohol-related. In those five months, 5,234 people were hurt in drunken-driving accidents, according to DMV figures.
The law also begins in the middle of National Sobriety Checkpoint Week, which begins Tuesday.
State and local police announced Friday that they will stop motorists at checkpoints throughout South Hampton Roads during the week. The Coast Guard also will be enforcing BUI, or boating under the influence, laws.
“I feel that perhaps, at last, all my work and all the work done by the members of my group and others has given some meaning to these people’s deaths,” DeVenny said. “I remember going to my daughter’s grave and saying, `Damn, I am going to do something about this.’ It was a long fight, it was a hard fight, and it certainly wasn’t a cinch. . . . It has been a long time coming.”