Time at long last for House to pass drunk-driving bill

Jun 24, 2015

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

This post originally appeared in the leadership blog of the Majority Coalition Caucus, Exit 105.

Before we wrap up our business for the year and start thinking about the long drive home, a drunk-driving bill awaits our action in the Legislature. Something we need to do before we get behind the wheel.

A series of terrible accidents in the Seattle area two years ago called our attention to the problem of the repeat offender. We have one of the weakest laws in the country, allowing drunk drivers to avoid a felony charge and a prison term until their fifth conviction over a 10 year period. Three times this year the Senate has passed a bill that sends them to prison on the fourth conviction. Each time the vote has been unanimous. Yet for some reason the House has failed to bring this measure to the floor for a vote.

The case for Senate Bill 5105 is so strong it is hard to believe its passage remains in doubt. This is not a bill that targets the average person ticketed for driving under the influence. For most people our system of laws and civil penalties is sufficient. A mere ticket, even without a conviction, causes responsible people to search their souls and change their behavior. Unfortunately there are others for whom alcohol is more powerful than any law.

No statute is likely to keep these habitual drunks from pouring themselves into their cars. But we know who they are, because we see them pass through our courts time and again. A prison term will inherently be longer than a sentence served in a county jail. If hard time causes these drunk drivers to make the right decision, and they renounce alcohol or at least driving while impaired, all the better. But first things first – let’s get them off the road.

What called our attention to the matter was a pair of high-profile cases in the Seattle two years ago. There was the family mowed down as it crossed the street, the father and mother killed, their daughter and her infant son grievously injured. There was the woman killed in a head-on when a drunk driver pulled a U-turn on the freeway approach to the Evergreen Point Bridge. Just last week we saw a Renton man flip his car on the West Seattle Bridge, miraculously avoiding injury to his infant daughter. What these cases had in common is the fact that these drivers had long histories of DUI arrests.

We should be dismayed that it takes horrific accidents in the state’s biggest media market to raise our awareness, when there are many such cases year after year in every community of the state. Some 50 percent of traffic fatalities in this state are alcohol-related, on average 225 a year. Any drunk driver is a hazard, whether on the first offense or the umpteenth. Indeed, most alcohol-related crashes are caused by drivers who have not previously been convicted of drunk driving. But the repeat offender is a particular problem. A driver with prior DUI convictions is 62 percent more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than a driver with no convictions.

The first offense might be a mistake — some 70 percent of arrestees are not ticketed again. The second offense probably demonstrates a drinking problem. The fourth shows an offender clearly is not getting the message, and I don’t think we need a fifth to prove the point.

Of 45 states with felony drunk-driving statutes, Washington is the only one that considers a fourth conviction a misdemeanor. Others allow a non-injury DUI to be considered a felony on the second, third or fourth offense. Washington is behind other states when it comes to giving tools to prosecutors and law enforcement agencies to deal with this problem.

Under this bill, Washington will see an additional 276 cases each year tried as felonies. When fully implemented, the state will bear an additional cost of roughly $10 million every two years. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tells us the financial impact of just one alcohol-related traffic fatality is $10 million. I think most of us would agree this is money well spent. Before we hit the road, this bill deserves our attention.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, is chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee.