State Senate approves DUI compliance bill

Those who jump in a car after drinking alcohol may have a little more to think about before they step on the accelerator.
The state Senate has approved a measure that will bring Pennsylvania into compliance with federal requirements for a .08 threshold for drunk driving and for ignition interlock for repeat offenders, according to Sen. Robert C. Jubelirer.
The bill passed 47-1, with Jubelirer among the “yes” votes.
“Our action, if matched by the House of Representatives next week, will give Pennsylvania a tougher drunk driving law and will preserve the important federal transportation dollars tied to this issue,” Jubelirer said.
It now goes to the House, which had previously passed a similar bill that ran into opposition in the Senate over the severity of punishments for certain offenders, among other things.
In addition to lowering the blood-alcohol limit from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent, the bill is a broad revision to the state’s 20-year-old drunken-driving law.
It toughens penalties for drivers with especially high blood-alcohol levels and ensures that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has authority to install an ignition interlock device in the car of a repeat offender for one year whether ordered by a judge or not.
“All the evidence shows that we have to do more to prevent repeat DUI offenders. This is a reasonable and responsible way of doing what the federal government has prescribed, while reconciling competing views on the right amounts of punishment and rehabilitation in different situations,” said Jubelirer. “We have to get help for drivers who are struggling with addiction, and we have to do it in a way that reduces the risks for the many law-abiding drivers. We have attempted the strike the right balance, one that could be characterized as ‘treatment where possible, punishment when necessary.”
Sen. Charles Dent of Lehigh agreed.
“By going to 0.08, people will be more cautious before getting behind the wheel,” said Sen. Dent, citing federal studies showing that lower limits correspond to safer highways. “We believe behaviors will change in the community.”
Without a 0.08 blood-alcohol limit in force by Oct. 1, the state faces losing up to $11 million in federal transportation dollars, or 2 percent of certain highway construction funds. The federal government also requires states to include an ignition interlock provision in the legislation, which has been part of Pennsylvania law for two years.
The bill sets up increasing levels of punishment for higher blood-alcohol levels — 0.08 to 0.099; 0.10 to 0.159; and 0.16 and up — all becoming more severe with each additional offense.
“This recognizes that drunk driving is a serious offense at any level, but that there should be stronger penalties for higher level of intoxication,” said Jubelirer. “We also understand that any additional treatment or imprisonment brings added costs locally, so there are ways to achieve savings at several places in the process.”
In negotiation sessions in recent months, Senate staff sought to lighten punishments contained in the House bill for some offenders.
Craig Shuey, an aide to Sen. Roger A. Madigan, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said there were concerns that the more severe penalties would run up expenses for cash-strapped counties while doing little to stop people from driving drunk again.
In addition, the bill contains provisions to help offenders who lose their license to be able to drive sooner, but only for purposes involving their job. For instance, first-time offenders who register a blood alcohol level of 0.10 or more lose their regular license for a year, but have an opportunity to get an occupational license after a 60-day suspension. First-time offenders with a blood-alcohol level beneath 0.10 do not face losing their license.
Pennsylvania is one of the last states to process this legislation. So far, 44 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have adopted the lower blood alcohol limit, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
A 170-pound man would reach the 0.08 limit by drinking four alcoholic drinks in an hour, while a 137-pound woman would reach the same level of intoxication after three drinks in the same period, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
(AP contribution)