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Bill would crack down on drunken drivers

Post by Katie Schmidt on March 22, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
March 22, 2011 1:23 pm

After Frank Blair of Tacoma lost his 24-year-old daughter to a head-on collision with a drunk driver in 2010, he vowed to take his cause to the state Legislature and try to convince lawmakers that they need to toughen penalties for drinking and driving in Washington.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee had a hearing on House Bill 1789, a measure that contains some of the provisions Blair said he hopes will become law in the state, including increased jail time for first-time offenders convicted of driving under the influence and expanded use of ignition-interlock devices.

“Drunk driving strikes with the ruthless randomness and the devastation of a bolt of lightening,” said Blair at the hearing. “It’s time to start toughening up the laws in Washington State.”

The bill under consideration in the Legislature now is a combination of several proposals that have come out this session. It would require more offenders to use ignition interlock devices, which test blood alcohol content before allowing drivers to start their cars, and, more controversially, it would lengthen the minimum sentence that a first-time DUI offender must serve to three to seven days, depending on blood alcohol content.

The minimum sentence part of the bill used to be a separate bill, House Bill 1556, but when that measure did not make a floor vote before the cutoff deadline, its sponsor, Rep. Steve Kirby, successfully added it to House Bill 1789 as an amendment.

The controversy around that part of the proposal has two elements: first, opponents say, it would be expensive for local governments and, second, jail time has not proven to be a very successful deterrent when it comes to preventing people from driving drunk again.

Candice Bock of the Association of Washington Cities and Brian Enslow from the Washington Association of Counties both said added jail time for DUI offenses would be expensive.

Though the bill allows local governments to charge defendants for their own incarceration, Enslow said counties are generally only able to collect about 30 percent of that cost, mainly because many of the people who are required to pay for jail time are too poor to do so.

The bill does not yet have a fiscal not that takes into account the minimum sentencing amendment, but Enslow said it would probably cost local governments several million dollars per year.

Shelly Balwin of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission said it’s true that the commission had not found jail time prevented drunk drivers from being arrested for driving under the influence again, but ignition interlock devices had proven to be a more effective tool.

Overall, according to data from the commission, alcohol and drug impairment was the most common factor leading to traffic fatalities in Washington, contributing to about 48 percent of driving deaths between 2006 and 2008.

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