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New DUI law stiffens penalties, opens records

By Raechel Dawson

WNPA Olympia News Bureau

After a Friday night of happy hour and late-night drinking, some people  fail to consider the repercussions of driving while impaired, but legislators have.

Various changes to the driving-under-the-influence law have unanimously passed the Legislature and will become effective upon the governor’s signature. The reform puts more stringent penalties on those convicted of drunk driving including increased fees and facial recognition systems on ignition-interlock devices.

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, sponsored House Bill 2443, which, he said, will enforce one of the most “comprehensive ignition interlock programs in the country” by strengthening the state employee workforce to properly administer it.

The Department of Licensing takes the reigns of the program from city and county courts.

Capt. Jason Berry, legislative liaison for the Washington State Patrol, has been an advocate for the bill and agrees that the current program needs better enforcement.

“As we look to technology to assist us in changing offender behavior, maintaining quality assurance and ensuring these drivers remain sober, we need appropriate oversight in place,” said Berry in a statement last week. “This bill will provide that, at no cost to the taxpayer.”

But, it will cost convicted drunk drivers.

The bill would impose fees to fund Ignition Interlock Devices for DUI-convicted drivers who can’t afford the device. For those who are required to have the Breathalyzer – which activates the device upon exceeding the alcohol limit – and can afford it, an extra $20 per month is tacked on to the original monthly interlock device fee. Fees are deposited into the Ignition Interlock Device Revolving Account, which then helps pay the cost for indigent drivers.

Stricter rules on who is required to have an ignition interlock device and who may apply for one opens up the number of devices to those who have had their original DUI charge reduced to reckless driving. This, in turn, increases the number of devices needed and generates more dollars.

“We’ve had about 25,000 [devices installed] over the course of the last couple of years. This might double those numbers,” said Goodman. “The research is really clear that if the device is in the car, you don’t drive drunk.”

In case having a device installed isn’t enough of an incentive to drive sober, the bill also urges ignition interlock devices come with a facial recognition system when possible.  This is to prevent sober friends or family from taking the breath test in lieu of the intoxicated vehicle-owner, according to Goodman.

Ignition Interlock Device manufacturers, vendors, technicians and providers have agreed to pay other fees that are estimated to rise up to $877,750 in fiscal year 2013. The money would be deposited into the Highway Safety Account controlled by the Washington State Patrol Impaired Driving Section Projects. According to Goodman, a stronger statewide compliance program is expected to emerge under terms of the new rules.

“State patrol will hire new staff to go around and make sure that the drivers who are supposed to have the devices in their cars, actually do,” said Goodman.

Fifteen states — Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, New York, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Virginia — now adding Washington, require sentenced drunk drivers to undergo an Ignition Breathalyzer.

In addition to these fees people convicted of driving while drunk must now pay $2,500 (originally $1,000) toward emergency response costs if applicable.

The state’s number of deaths from alcohol-related car wrecks has decreased since 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, but that could be because the national average of general traffic related deaths has decreased as well. The latest data shows the state’s DUI deaths make up about 37 percent of traffic fatalities.

There is an estimated 10,000 people killed and 350,000 injured in the United States each year, according to a Mothers Against Drunk Driving statement issued last week.

Among other technicalities, Goodman’s bill expands the definition for a DUI to include huffing chemical substances among the list of drugs one could take while driving under the influence.

He said this definition was amended because the original law had a loophole, in that, prosecutors could not adequately charge for a DUI if the defendant had been driving upon inhalation of chemical vapors.

Under terms of the new law felony, DUI cases are kept as public records. Formerly, people who had completed the terms of their felony DUI conviction could have their records sealed.

The DUI reform takes effect Aug. 1, 2012.

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