Bay Staters deserved stiffer drunk-driving bill from the House

DRUNKEN drivers may not be well organized, in more ways than one, but they surely seem to be an influential lot in Massachusetts lawmaking circles. Despite public-opinion samplings suggesting that Bay Staters want tougher measures to curb intoxicated motorists, legislative moves in that direction have been slow and timid.

The much-touted ``safe streets act,'' which cleared the House Dec. 1 on a 232-to-0 roll call, is a far cry from what the commonwealth may need to get drunks off the road and out of the driver's seat.

Although there is no question that Gov. Michael S. Dukakis will sign it if it reaches his desk, the measure is less than he sought. Under the House bill, motorists who are involved in an accident or are stopped by police and flunk a Breathalyzer test will in many instances retain their licenses at least until the cases go to court. That could take weeks. Meanwhile, the driver would still be on the road.

The original Dukakis proposal, supported by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and others dedicated to freeing Massachusetts roadways of liquor-impaired motorists, sought immediate license suspension.

Also generally favored by the governor were penalties for repeat offenders that were stiffer than members of the joint legislative committee on criminal justice were willing to accept.

While two weeks in jail is double the seven days now prescribed by law for a motorist with a second drunk-driving conviction, it may not be much of a deterrent. Most who take to the road while intoxicated don't realize that they are unfit to drive and those who do don't expect to be caught.

A more effective means of preventing drunk driving might be longer jail terms, perhaps coupled with hours of required public service and a license suspension of at least six months.

The latter would pose a hardship for convicted drivers and their families. But their alcohol-impaired driving might also pose a hardship for potential victims and their loved ones.

Mandatory sentences for those caught driving drunk while their license is suspended or revoked, as provided in the House bill, is needed.

But the two-month minimum term prescribed may be inadequate in view of the seriousness of the offense and the menace to public safety. A more appropriate penalty might include both longer detention and permanent loss of license.

The House-approved legislation, like the present law, allows drunk-driving suspects to refuse to take the breath test. The motorist who refuses, however, would face an automatic license suspension for 150 days, instead of the 90 days now provided. Critics of that arrangement, including State Rep. Theodore Alexio (D) of Taunton, sought unsuccessfully to have the suspension terminated if and when there is a later court finding of not guilty.

That move would surely have weakened the legislation, since it would encourage those who might flunk the breath test to decline to take it, with the possibility of later being cleared of the charge by a judge or jury for lack of compelling evidence of intoxication.

Under the state's implied-consent law, a motorist found to have a 0.1 blood-alcohol level is presumed unfit to operate a motor vehicle. A few states allow levels no higher than 0.08. A strong case could be made for Massachusetts to follow suit, but there is little support among lawmakers for anything that might make it harder for drinking drivers to prove their fitness.

Despite strong objections to the implied-consent concept's provision for automatic license suspension for those refusing the breath test, the Massachusetts law has been upheld by the US Supreme Court. The justices held that denial of due process was not involved, because a driving license is a privilege and not a right.

The House legislation would impose its stiffest penalties on drunk drivers involved in serious accidents. A motorist convicted of vehicular homicide would face one year in jail and loss of license for 10 years. Drunk drivers causing serious injury would be jailed for six months.

Although the House proposes stiffer penalties than now prescribed, new penalties could, and probably should, be much tougher. Why not permanent revocation of license?

How effective the legislation may be in making state highways safer could hinge not only on many drivers' changing their habits, but also on enforcement by police and the courts. Too many drunk drivers have been able to get off with little more than a mild ``please don't do it again'' from lenient judges or juries.

With the legislature in its final days, little time remains for further work on the ``safe streets'' measure if it is to become law this year. Since even with its shortcomings this would, or at least could, be a modest improvement, those who want stricter drunk-driving laws can hardly do less than lobby hard for its passage.

Further changes can always be made next year.

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