After Frank Blair of Tacoma lost his 24-year-old daughter to a head-on collision with a drunken driver last year, he vowed to take his cause to the Legislature and try to convince lawmakers that they need to toughen penalties for drinking and driving.
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,” Blair told lawmakers at the hearing. “It’s time to start toughening up the laws in Washington State.”
The bill under consideration 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.
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According to data from the Traffic Safety 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.
Fatal collisions involving an impaired driver have decreased 57 percent since 1980, however, according to a commission report, mainly because of public awareness campaigns and tougher DUI laws.
The minimum sentence provision in this year’s proposed bill, which would increase the penalty over the existing one- to two-day minimum sentence, did not make a key cutoff deadline. But its sponsor, Tacoma Democrat 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 proved 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 a burden to local governments because, on average, it costs about $76 per day to keep someone in a county jail.
“We think this provision just adds additional costs, takes scarce jail space and doesn’t provide additional benefit,” said Bock.
Kirby said he hoped budget concerns would not dominate the discussion about drunk driving in Washington. “There’s part of me in the back of my mind that says, how much of the state’s money is it worth to save some portion of the deaths that happen because of DUI drivers?” he said.
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.
When it comes to keeping people from drinking and driving again, she said, ignition interlock devices had proved to be a more effective tool.
Washington is one of 12 states with a law requiring the devices for at least a year for everyone who is convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Rep. Roger Goodman, a Kirkland Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said the main purpose of expanding the types of offenses that will require an ignition interlock device in Washington was to address cases where defendants “plead down.” That happens when people charged with driving under the influence agree to plead guilty for a lesser offense, such as negligent driving, and save the prosecutor the time and money it takes to go to trial.
If the bill passes, an ignition interlock would be required if the original charge was DUI-related, even if the defendant ends up pleading guilty for something else.
In order to become law, the bill has to pass out of committee before Friday’s deadline for committees to vote on opposite-house bills, pass a Senate floor vote and be approved by the governor.