DUI penalties could rise

Published 10:55 pm Wednesday, February 15, 2012

By Hannah Hess

Virginia Statehouse News

Critics of legislation that would tighten Virginia’s drunken driving laws say the plan would do little to make the state’s roads safer.

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Senate Bill 378 would increase the penalties for first-time offenders by requiring them to buy and install ignition interlocks to use while their driver’s licenses are suspended.  Sen. Don. McEachin, D-Henrico, is the bill’s sponsor.

Mechanics can install the device, and drivers must blow or hum into the tip of the instrument, similar to a Breathalyzer, to verify that blood alcohol level below .02 percent. If they exceed that level, the vehicle will not start.

Currently ignition interlock systems are required only upon a second or subsequent offense or when the offender’s blood alcohol level was recorded above 0.15 percent. If the bill is approved by the House and signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, first-time offenders, even those convicted with low blood-alcohol levels, will pay $2 each day of their sentence for the locking devices.

The bill also adds passenger vehicles designed to transport more than 15 people to the list of vehicles that cannot be operated by people convicted of driving drunk.

Richmond lawyer William Fitzhugh, of Bowen, Champlin, Foreman & Rockecharlie, has defended people charged with driving under the influence. He said he doubts ignition interlock systems would cut the number of highway deaths or the number of people driving under the influence.

“The (driving under the influence) laws are pretty strict as is,” Fitzhugh said. “Are we headed towards a situation in which all cars are equipped with ignition interlocks?”

AAA Mid-Atlantic, a motor club; the Washington Regional Alcohol Program; and the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police say the bill would save lives on Virginia roads.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, a nonprofit that says its mission is to “support the victims of this violent crime and prevent underage drinking,” helped to develop the legislation.

They thanked the state Senate for passing the legislation 23-17 over the opposition of Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County.

Martha Meade, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said: “It is perfect that our six-year battle to get this law out of the Senate would be won on Valentine’s Day, as more loved ones will be alive to celebrate future Valentine’s Days with their loved ones, rather being just a memory after being killed at the hands of a drunk driver.”

Some Republicans said McEachin’s measure fails to go far enough to prevent drunken driving. First-time drunken driving offenders could drive cars only when equipped with ignition interlocks, but they are not required to put the locks on every vehicle they own. According to the bill, it is illegal for first-time offenders to drive cars that are not equipped with the ignition interlocks.

Sen. Tom Garrett, R-Louisa, said he worries people prone to drunken driving will simply drive another car not equipped with the lock system to and from the bar.

The bill “won’t solve the problem, it just puts money in the pockets of the people who manufacture interlock systems,” Garrett said.