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More must be done to stop repeat drunk drivers

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on March 28, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
March 28, 2013 5:00 pm

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

Tragedy often has a predictable aftermath: first shock and grief, then anger.

We’re at the anger stage right now, grasping for how to react to the horrendous, senseless vehicular homicide that occurred Monday in a Seattle neighborhood.

A repeat drunken driver authorities say was again under the influence struck four family members out for an afternoon stroll. Two of them, retired schoolteachers Judy and Dennis Schulte, died at the scene. Their newborn grandson and daughter-in-law, a pediatric nurse, were critically injured.

The driver, Mark W. Mullan, has a long DUI history dating to the early 1990s. He’s been arrested twice for DUI in the past six months, in Snohomish and King counties – even showing up drunk at a hearing. He spent time in jail for both offenses, and his license was suspended.

But chronic drunks often don’t let something like a suspended license stop them from getting behind the wheel. Judges in both recent cases also told Mullan he’d have to use an ignition interlock device that would prevent him from starting his pickup if he had been drinking. No such device was in his truck on Monday.

Many drunken driving arrests are “one and done,” because the offender is shocked into never driving under the influence again. Most people are law-abiding, and the consequences for first-time DUI is now stiff enough that they will do anything not to become second-time offenders.

But someone in the throes of addiction is a different case entirely. The drug – in this case alcohol, but Mullan also has admitted to abusing other substances – takes over and impairs judgment to the point that concern about jail, fines and society’s contempt are virtually meaningless.

These people – who often are arrested with shockingly high blood-alcohol levels – are likely to continue driving impaired until they are physically stopped somehow. Tragically, it took the deaths of the Schultes to get Mullan off the street – hopefully for a very long time.

Fortunately, thanks to efforts by Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist and King Count Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, the Legislature last year enacted tougher vehicular homicide sentences – roughly double what they used to be – to hold drunken drivers more accountable when they kill someone.

But that’s after the fact. More must be done to help prevent these kinds of tragedies. State laws regarding repeat offenders are too lenient, with the first four DUIs considered misdemeanors.

According to Lindquist, “Only on the fifth one does the offense become a felony. Five offenses? This sends the wrong message. In many other states a third offense is a felony, and in a few states, including New York, a second offense is a felony.”

Although ignition interlock devices can be useful tools to prevent DUI, many offenders ordered to use them fail to do so. And there are only three State Patrol officers statewide checking on compliance. Greater enforcement – and higher penalties for noncompliance – are needed.

The state has made progress against drunken driving; 230 people were killed by impaired drivers in 2010 compared with 353 in 1996. But lawmakers need to keep working on the issue. They owe it to the Schultes and all the other victims.

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