The governor and Legislature are moving quickly to construct legislation intended to improve the way the state deals with drunken driving.
Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee and legislators from both parties announced what Inslee called, “the most aggressive, the most effective, the most ambitious” modification of state DUI laws ever.
Some of the changes mirror suggestions I got from readers when I wrote last week about the problem of repeat drunken drivers. People are outraged by our seeming inability to get repeat violators off the streets before they injure or kill someone.
The proposed changes would move the state in the right direction, toward earlier and more effective intervention. The legislation would speed up the filing of charges, stiffen punishment and make monitoring and treatment central.
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Legislators are going over the proposal now, so anything could change. But the proposal represents a sound approach to preventing more of the kinds of tragedies that ignited change — three people killed and two critically injured in collisions within days of each other, both involving drivers with a history of drinking and driving.
A story by Seattle Times reporter Brian M. Rosenthal quoted Inslee on the reason for the legislation: “We are here today because too many families in Washington state are losing their loved ones at the hands of impaired drivers.”
This is an emotional issue, so it is important to listen to objections, and there are some. The effect on civil liberties and the cost have to be taken into account.
With that in mind, let’s look at the main changes on the table.
Under the proposal, charges would be filed within 48 hours of an arrest for drunken driving, and the person’s car would be fitted with interlock devices before being returned. Interlocks prevent a car from starting if the driver is drunk.
Swift action to get drunken drivers off the road and to begin intervention makes sense, but some law-enforcement officials say complying with that section of the proposal will be a challenge, given that there are nearly 38,000 DUI arrests a year in the state.
It can take months for an offender to be charged. That’s too long. How fast will cost and judicial and law-enforcement capacity allow us to act? The faster we intervene, the more likely we are to be successful and to avoid potential tragedies. The balance has to be worked out, but the current situation is not the best we can do.
The Times story said, “More than 8,000 people were convicted of three or more DUIs in Washington between 1998 and 2012.” By acting quickly on the first arrest, we ought to be able to cut that number.
The cost of installing interlock devices ought to be charged to drivers convicted of DUI.
The proposal calls for six months in jail for a second conviction and a year in jail for a third. In both cases, there is an option to participate in a sobriety program and wear a bracelet that would detect alcohol.
That’s a tough penalty but one that recognizes the ability of people to change with help. Not everyone who drinks and drives has the disease of alcoholism, but for those who do, treatment can be lifesaving.
Getting more serious about the impact of alcohol abuse comes with a responsibility to vet treatment programs and to make sure they are effective and are right for the individual.
That will cost, but it will pay off beyond making roads safer. Drunkenness is associated with a host of problem behaviors, from public misconduct to domestic violence and abuse. Getting intervention right the first time can only save us money and grief in the long term.
The proposed legislation also includes a first for any state. A third DUI would result in issuing a special driver’s license that would ban restaurants, bars or liquor stores from selling alcohol to the bearer. The prohibition would last 10 years.
That kind of penalty makes it clear that outrage has drained the tolerance out of us. This proposal isn’t just a package of legal changes, it signals a cultural change, another step toward dealing with a practice that puts lives at risk needlessly.
The proposal channels our collective anger into solutions.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org