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Originally published May 14, 2013 at 7:33 PM | Page modified May 15, 2013 at 10:27 AM

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DUI bill clears a Senate hurdle; U.S. panel pushes tougher rule

A bipartisan bill to stiffen Washington state’s DUI penalties cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday, while a safety board in the other Washington sought to kick off a national conversation about changing the very definition of drunken driving.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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OLYMPIA — A bipartisan bill to stiffen Washington state’s DUI penalties cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday, while a safety board in the other Washington sought to kick off a national conversation about changing the very definition of drunken driving.

State officials, focused on their own bill, said they will wait until at least next year to consider the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation that states cut the blood-alcohol threshold to 0.05 percent from 0.08 percent.

“I would not rule out that discussion at some later date, but right now we have to get this job done,” said Gov. Jay Inslee, who has championed the state proposal crafted in the aftermath of recent fatal crashes that authorities have tied to alcohol.

The Senate Law & Justice Committee approved its version of the proposal in the morning, sending the bill to the chamber’s budget panel to deal with fiscal issues that have proved more difficult than the policy itself.

Among other provisions, Senate Bill 5912 would add 10 days in jail to all minimum sentences for DUI (driving under the influence), make drunken driving a felony on the fourth conviction (it currently is on the fifth) and require ignition-interlock devices be installed before repeat DUI offenders are released from jail after an arrest.

The interlock devices, which prevent a car from starting if the driver is drunk, already are required for all those convicted of a DUI. But critics say the state does not do enough to enforce the installation of the devices.

The bill also would prohibit deferred sentencing in drunken-driving cases, expand DUI courts and pilot a 24/7 alcohol-monitoring program as an alternative to prison.

The House Public Safety Committee plans to vote on a similar proposal as soon as next week, said Chairman Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland.

Those items all were agreed upon in recent negotiations between Inslee and a bipartisan group of lawmakers. But the funding question remains a key sticking point.

On Tuesday, the unanimous Senate Law & Justice Committee vote belied concerns from both sides of the aisle.

Democrats said the proposal doesn’t devote enough money to treatment programs or give local governments enough to implement the new provisions.

“I agree, [chronic drunken drivers] should be behind bars. But they also should have treatment because at some point they’re going to get out,” said state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle. “And we have to be cognizant of the needs of our local jurisdictions. They can’t do all of this for free. It’s impossible.”

Republican Sen. Pam Roach, on the other hand, said the proposal isn’t tough enough.

“It takes, what, four convictions to actually have a felony for going out on the road and potentially killing and maiming? This is not where we should be in this state,” said Roach, of Auburn.

“We have more to do,” added Roach, who proposed lowering the blood-alcohol threshold to 0.01 percent.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation of 0.05 percent was among nearly 20 suggestions made Tuesday, including that states adopt measures to ensure more widespread use of interlock devices.

But the blood-alcohol level got the most attention.

The new limit would equal about one drink per hour for a woman weighing less than 120 pounds and two per hour for a 160-pound man.

Several state law-enforcement officials expressed support for the recommendation.

Lt. Rob Sharpe, who is in charge of the Washington State Patrol’s impaired-driving section, said each time the state’s breath-alcohol limit has been lowered, “there’s been a dramatic decrease in the number of DUI fatalities.”

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said it’s a good idea to reduce the legal standard for drunken driving, but he pointed out police can arrest drivers for that crime even when they are below 0.08.

“I don’t think it would vastly change our workload, as we charged the DUIs that are under .08 if there is evidence of impairment,” Holmes said in a statement. “Changing the law would make it easier to get convictions on those cases and would more accurately reflect the reality of when people are impaired.”

Between Jan. 1, 2012, and May 1, 2013, the Washington State Patrol says law-enforcement agencies in the state made 2,719 arrests in cases where the breath tests recorded levels between 0.05 and 0.079 percent. The Patrol reported about 28,000 arrests in cases where tests recorded levels of 0.08 or higher.

Dan Donohoe, a spokesman for King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, said the recommendation deserves a lot more review.

“Right now, our focus should be on the chronic, repeat DUI offenders and that is where we can best focus our limited resources,” Donohoe said.

Staff reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal

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