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New drunken-driving law in effect at 12:01 a.m., Jan. 1

New Year's Eve revelers who have imbibed too much of the bubbly could get a taste of stiffer drunken-driving laws after the stroke of midnight Jan. 1.

A new law created through House Bill 2426 this year will impose a minimum $2,000 fine on anyone caught with a blood-alcohol level of .15 or higher, which is roughly twice the legal limit of .08.

Of the 25,000 people annually who get arrested for drunken driving, about 50 percent have a blood-alcohol level above .16.

"When you get to the .15 level, the effects are so far off the scale," said Troy Costales, administrator at the Transportation Division for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

He said the law was passed to lessen the number of people who die on the state's highways because of a drunken driver.

"Every other day somebody in Oregon is killed," he said.

Deaths related to drunken driving statewide have remained in the 160 to 170 range annually for the past five years, and lawmakers wanted to make the highways safer.

The new legislation should bring those numbers down, Costales said.

Many countries have enacted tougher penalties for drunken driving, a trend that is being followed in the U.S.

Costales said the Oregon Legislature has looked at dropping the legal limit to .04 or .05. Utah also has considered this idea, but so far it hasn't been enacted in any state yet. Both Germany and France have legal blood-alcohol limits of .05. A commercial driver in Oregon has a .04 limit.

Depending on the person, a blood-alcohol level of even .02 to .04 can impair judgment, Costales said.

Under the new law, the minimum $2,000 fine for drunken driving could rise as high as $10,000, depending on the severity of the situation.

For anyone caught driving with a .08 alcohol level, the fine is $1,000 for the first penalty, $1,500 for the second and $2,000 for the third.

Shelley Snow, ODOT spokeswoman, said the law officially takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1.

She said it is difficult to say how much booze someone would have to drink before he or she becomes intoxicated. A heavy drinker might feel like a .15 level doesn't make them impaired, while a person who rarely drinks could feel tipsy at .04. A lot depends on weight, metabolism, how often a person drinks and whether the person drank on an empty stomach.

"It's so different for everybody," Snow said. "I can't say after one beer you can drive but after two you can't."

Even though a person might not feel drunk, their behavior and reactions definitely are impaired when they go above the legal limit, she said.

Snow's own husband, who was riding a motorcycle, was hit by a driver with a blood-alcohol level of .25. Her husband survived, but the drunken driver couldn't even stand up. "He got out of the truck and fell over," she said.

Medford police Detective Sgt. Mike Budreau said his officers are ready to start fining people at the higher rate on New Year's Day.

"You will be surprised at how common it is that we find people that are two or three times over the limit," he said.

The new law should discourage many of these drinkers from getting behind the wheel, Budreau said.

If drunken drivers are pulled over, they face jail time or a trip to the sobering unit. In some cases because of jail overcrowding, they are cited and released to a sober person, he said.

For the average person, it is difficult to tell if you've had too much booze.

Budreau said his advice is, "If you're buzzed, you're drunk."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.