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Originally published May 15, 2013 at 7:50 PM | Page modified May 15, 2013 at 11:41 PM

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Just say yes to tougher DUI laws

Olympia should move forward with a stricter approach to drunken driving despite real obstacles.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The governor and the Legislature have been sprinting toward legislation to reduce drunken driving, but they’re also worrying about whether we have the resources and structure to support the policies they’ve come up with.

They’re right about the obstacles, but they shouldn’t let systemic shortcomings stop them from pressing forward. The details won’t get fixed until Olympia sets a new course.

Tuesday the Senate Law and Justice Committee submitted a set of proposals and a House committee will do the same in a few days.

The Senate bill would increase sentences for DUI convictions, make the offense a felony on the fourth conviction rather than the fifth, and require installing ignition-interlock devices before a person arrested for a repeat offense is released from jail.

It would also ban deferred sentences, expand DUI courts and start an alcohol-monitoring program as an alternative to prison time.

The bill is a sensible mix of toughness with more alternative and treatment options. It also pushes past budget limits and infrastructure, as critics have noted. We don’t have all of the necessary systems in place to handle its requirements, but we never will if we don’t make the changes now while there is momentum to act.

Attitudes about drunken driving are changing and this state isn’t alone. Also on Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board urged states to adopt its list of stricter DUI policies, most prominent among them reducing the blood-alcohol threshold for drunken driving from 0.08 percent to 0.05.

The NTSB said more than 100 countries have 0.05 percent or stricter standards, and that after the standard was adopted in Europe, traffic deaths attributed to drunken driving fell by a half within a decade.

At 0.05, the news stories say a 120-pound woman could have about one drink an hour and a 160-pound man two drinks. Lots of businesses, especially some restaurants and all bars, make money when people drink more than that, whether they actively encourage it or not.

It’s not necessary to demonize them, but our systems for getting people to drink are more developed than the infrastructure we depend on to keep them off the road afterward.

Cautionary voices here say adopting tougher policies will overtax the police and courts, and strain already inadequate counseling programs. And they point out that interlock devices can be gotten around. It’s possible to make better ones, but where’s the incentive?

There’s an imbalance between forces that support more drinking and forces that prevent drinking from being a problem on the road. As we change that balance, we’ll also change attitudes, so that getting drunk and driving will feel wrong in the same way that driving without a seat belt does.

Sometimes I like to have a drink with dinner, but how many matters, and so does whether I’m driving. My awareness of that has grown as our culture has changed over the years and as support systems for drinking have diminished.

We can think differently about having a drink and driving, just as we removed cultural supports for the lunchtime tipple. If Olympia sends a strong enough message, maybe some people will choose to drink more moderately, maybe some will get in the habit of using mass transit when they drink heavily (and maybe we’ll support that choice by making transit more available and convenient).

Maybe we can develop a more serious attitude about the responsibility driving entails and not only reduce DUIs, but dissuade people from driving when they are too tired or distracted.

Part of changing how we think is changing the signals our laws send about what is OK and what isn’t. Putting lives at risk for another drink or two isn’t OK.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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