Pressure grows for tougher laws to keep drunk drivers off the road

Momentum is growing for a tougher nationwide crackdown on drunk drivers - the single most serious threat on US highways.

The National Safety Council estimates that more than half of all 550,000 road fatalities last year involved the use of liquor. Growing pressure from irate citizens is sending state and federal law enforcement officials, judges, and lawmakers on the warpath against motorists who take to the roads while intoxicated.

Within the past few months the number of drunk-driver arrests has increased. And many courts are imposing tougher penalties, especially against repeat offenders.

Perhaps even greater headway toward dealing with the driving while intoxicated (DWI) problem, however, is being made in state legislatures and in Congress.

In recent weeks, Florida, Indiana, New Mexico, Minnesota, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming have enacted new laws aimed at ridding roads of drunk motorists. Similar proposals, many of them even tougher and more encompassing, are under consideration in 33 other states.

At the federal level, President Reagan is expected to establish within few weeks a special commission to study and shape recommendations for combating the nation's drunk-driver problem.

Congress, too, may be moving toward passage of legislation that could help stiffen state drunk-driver laws.

Sen. John Danforth (R) of Missouri has introduced a bill that calls for incentives to induce states to set standards for license suspensions and revocations. Also included is provision for a computerized national driver registry by which states could keep track of motorists who should be off the road. The bill would use federal highway funds as the ''carrot.''

A more comprehensive measure, cosponsored by Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island and Rep. Michael Barnes (D) of Maryland, includes provisions for mandatory sentences and would utilize federal highway funds to penalize states that fail to measure up to proposed DWI-control standards.

The two somewhat parallel measures, aired March 3 before the Senate Commerce Committee, are aimed at encouraging states to come to grips more effectively with the DWI problem. Sponsors of both pieces of legislation now are working on a compromise.

The prospects for passage of the federal proposal is uncertain. But several of the pending state measures are expected to pass, including one in Maryland that would raise the minimum drinking age for beer and wine from 18 to 21, the current level for other forms of liquor. The measure, strongly supported by Gov. Harry Hughes, is expected to reach his desk within the next few days.

This would make Maryland the 15th state to raise its drinking age over the past six years, reversing a 1970-75 trend during which 28 states lowered the liquor age minimum for some, if not all, alcoholic beverages from 21 to 18, 19, or 20.

Current bills in 17 other states are similarly directed toward raising the drinking age by at least one year.

The year's toughest statute, thus far, has taken effect in Utah. There, a person convicted of drunk driving faces a mandatory 2-to-10-day jail sentence or work in an alcoholic rehabilitation program - at the discretion of the sentencing judge - on a first offense. Repeat offenders face even stiffer penalties, including bigger fines, longer license suspensions, and permanent license revocation for a third conviction.

The new Florida statute includes a 48 hour mandatory jailing for first (DWI) offenders and up to 10 days for a second offense.The new New Mexico measure requires 48 hours for a second offense without possibility of suspension.New statutes in South Dakota and Wyoming make it harder, if not impossible, for a motorist arrested for DWI to plea bargain. In Virginia, a newly enacted measure imposes a mandatory 48-hour jail sentence and an automatic one-year driving-license suspension for a second DWI conviction. It also calls for a one-month jail term and permanent license revocation for a third offense. Higher fines also are included.Although stopping short of mandatory sentences, the new Minnesota highway safety law tightens penalties for second and subsequent drunk-driver convictions: The measure calls for automatic license suspension for 60 days when an arrested motorist is found to have 0.07 percent or greater alcohol in his or her blood. What could be the nation's most far-reaching DWI measure is now being prepared by Massachusetts Gov. Edward J. King. The law would penalize sober passengers in cars with a drunk driver behind the wheel. Those riding with a motorist found to have a blood alcohol level of 0.20 percent or greater could face a $100 to $500 fine on the grounds that they either knew, or should have known, the driver's condition and prevented him or her from driving. The legislation also includes mandatory jail terms for motorists convicted of DWI. Drunk driving would become a felony instead of a misdemeanor. And a new offense called vehicular homicide, where a death results from an accident involving DWI, would call for an 18-month to 10-year imprisonment. All but one year of that could be suspended on a first conviction. Repeaters would face a mandatory 5-year to 10-year sentences. Steeper fines and license revocations similarly are sought.The scope of anti-drunk driving legislation currently being considered in other states varies widely. Bills under consideration Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Tennessee include some type of mandatory imprisonment.Most, however, would apply only to second or subsequent DWI convictions, notes Catherine Yoe of the Washington, D.C.-based Highway Users Federation.Seven states now have mandatory imprisonment provisions on their books. The two most recently implemented measures include one calling for 24 hours of incarceration in West Virginia; in Maine, the new mandatory sentence calls for 48 hours in jail. Both of these took effect last September. Alaska, Arizona, California, Ohio, and Washington have similar DWI penalties. However, in several states enforcement appears to be less than rigid, according to Philip Dozier of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration's ajudication division. Often, he says, drunk drivers are able to avoid jail by pleading guilty to a lesser misdemeanor for which suspended sentences are possible - especially when the driver was not involved in an accident. A shortage of jail cells is a major and frequently compelling argument against mandatory jail terms for drunk drivers, or, where mandatory jail sentences are required, for less strict enforcement, Mr. Dozier says. California's statute, he points out, permits the sentencing judge to decide between incarceration and assignment to an alcoholism rehabilitation program. Washington State's provision for a one-day jailing, for example, has been variously interpreted by judges as less than a full 24 hours behind bars. Pending legislation there would specify 24-hour jailing.Most pending measures embrace stiffer fines and longer or more certain driving license suspensions or revocations. California lawmakers are considering a new 5-cent-a-drink tax on liquor. The revenue raised would be used for alcoholic rehabilitation programs.

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