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The Star Ledger: June 14, 2007

Drink to Paris’ fate? That might not be such a good idea

Paris Hilton is a bad driver. Lots of people are bad drivers. But driving is a means of transportation. It is not a moral issue.

You wouldn’t know that from the coverage of the Hilton case. All of America seems to be united in demanding that the clueless cutie be taught a lesson. But when you come right down to it, millions of Americans have committed the same crime that got Hilton started on the road to ruin.

Her troubles began in September of last year when she was booked for drunken driving. Her blood alcohol level was a mere .08, which was once below the legal limit---until a certain New Jersey senator decided to stick his nose into what was properly the business of state government.

About 10 years ago, Democrat Frank Lautenberg embarked on a crusade to force every state to adopt a blood alcohol standard of .08 for drunken driving. Lautenberg and his fellow bluenoses steamrollered critics of the bill, who argued that virtually anyone who had a couple of drinks would be in danger of being busted for DWI.

That is particularly true for tiny women like Hilton. Hilton’s lawyer said at the time of her arrest that she had had just one margarita on an empty stomach. That sounds like a stretch, but if it was a big enough and good enough margarita, then modern science tells us that such a tiny person could indeed attain a blood alcohol level of .08 after consuming it.

As for you, dear reader, if you have ever had wine with dinner and then driven home, you may have narrowly escaped the same fate as Hilton. I discussed this yesterday with Bart Baffuto. He’s defense lawyer from Manasquan who is part of a team of lawyers challenging the veracity of the Alcotest breath-testing machine before the state Supreme Court. He argues the machine can push an innocent person over the .08 limit for a number of reasons too technical to deal with in this short space.

Baffuto told me that ever since .08 became law, he has seen a big increase in the numbers of “middle-class, regular people” charged with drunken driving.

“They are people’s fathers, mothers, sisters, and even grandmothers,” Baffuto said. “I had one poor grandmother who went to her office Christmas party and had a few glasses of champagne.”

Police departments are nabbing these people more in the pursuit of money than in the pursuit of justice, he said. About $145 of every $200 collected by municipal courts comes beck to the towns, said Baffuto.

“The real way to stand out in a suburban police department is to make drunk driving arrests and bring revenue back to the department and the court,” he said.

This may be a good way to fund government, but it’s a poor way to improve highway safety. Despite the draconian enforcement, the number of fatal accidents attributed to drivers with a .08 alcohol level is about the same as it was when the law was adopted, federal statistics show.

If our senator really wants to do something about safety, he should consider a different area, one that is within the proper purview of a federal official. Consider the recent traffic case of another celebrity, basketball player J.R. Smith. The passenger in Smith’s SUV was fatally injured Saturday afternoon when it rolled over after colliding with another car. There is no indication Smith was impaired at the time of the accident. It appears he was simply an aggressive driver who had a long list of speeding and reckless driving convictions and who didn’t have the patience to wait at a stop sign. As such, he may face less of a penalty than Hilton did for harming the sensibilities of a judge.

But imagine you’re driving down a county road like the one in Monmouth County where Smith crashed. Who would you rather have coming toward you on a side street? A sober J.R. Smith out for an afternoon drive in his giant SUV? Or Paris Hilton in her Bentley with a margarita under her belt?

While drunken driving fatalities are probably as low as they can go, statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that thousands of lives could be saved every year by bringing sport utility vehicles and other light trucks down to the same height as cars. Such a regulation would do nothing to advance the spirit of Puritanism, but it would do much to advance safety.

Somehow I don’t think Lautenberg will be introducing that bill anytime soon. Last time I saw him, he was getting into a giant SUV.

Paul Mulshine may be reached at pmulshine@starledger.com