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Originally published Wednesday, July 3, 2013 at 7:59 PM

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We need laws that say driving drunk is not cool

Legislative battle against drunken driving is a matter of evolution of both laws and culture rather than quick solutions.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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This prolonged legislative session presented an opportunity for bold action to combat drunken driving because deadly crashes in March and April were still fresh in everyone’s minds.

Both drivers had prior DUI arrests but were still driving. It seemed that outrage over the crashes would lead to much tougher laws that would keep repeat offenders off the streets. Then last week the final legislation went to the governor minus some of its harshest proposals, and it felt like the state had missed a rare chance to pass major DUI legislation because it would cost too much.

I talked with state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, one of the architects of the bill about that legislation and what’s ahead. I asked if it could have been tougher and Goodman said, sometimes what looks tough, “just ends up being tough on the budget. I think what we did this time is tough and also smart.”

Goodman emphasized steady change. He started working on drunken driving when he joined the Legislature in 2007 and convened a group of stakeholders to study the issue. The Legislature passed an ignition-interlock bill in 2008 and has steadily added provisions to curb impaired driving, for which both the state and Goodman have been praised by national organizations that promote safe driving.

“We don’t need tragedies to spur us,” Goodman said Tuesday.

Steady progress is good, but this was a tough session, money was especially short, there were lots of competing issues, including a court demand for better education funding. Gov. Jay Inslee had to convene two special sessions to get the budget done.

A DUI bill was in the mix before the two collisions, but it almost got lost. It (and several other bills) missed the cutoff in the regular session because work on a gun-check bill took up so much time, Goodman said. “Then we had the tragedies,” he said. “I went to the governor and asked him: “Can you bring us together?” Goodman said.

The governor and a bipartisan group of legislators put an aggressive package of proposals on the agenda. Not all of it survived, but the final bill should save lives.

The bill includes monitoring with treatment, money to help prosecutors speed up the time it takes to file charges, and mandatory jail time for repeat offenders, who will spend a day or two in jail beginning with their second arrest. Studies have shown swift and certain punishment has a deterrent effect.

“Going forward I would like to see booking of every DUI arrest,” he said.

The legislation also requires either participation in a 24-7 monitoring and treatment program or installation of an ignition-interlock device when someone who has a DUI conviction is arrested a second time — before the person is tried on the second charge.

Goodman said the state adopted interlock devices because, “four out of five people convicted drive anyway.” Interlock devices measure blood alcohol content via breath analysis and prevent ignition if the driver has been drinking.

“One thing we have to tighten up,” Goodman said, “is to make sure the devices that are supposed to be in cars are there. So we gave the State Patrol more resources to enforce that.”

Goodman said he’d also like the state to consider allowing sobriety checkpoints, which he said have been shown to reduce deaths in states that permit them.

And he said the Legislature will likely take another look at moving the DUI felony threshold. The crime becomes a felony when a driver is convicted five times in a 10-year period.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, pushed for DUI to be a felony on the fourth conviction, but that proposal failed. It would cost millions to house the additional prisoners.

Also lost was a proposal to prohibit repeat offenders from drinking for 10 years. Goodman said restaurants and bars feared lawsuits, the Department of Licensing said it was unworkable, and, most convincingly, people who treat substance abusers said they’ll always find a way to get booze.

As useful as the new provisions are, ultimately it’s not just laws, but people’s attitudes that will make roads safer. Goodman said, “Only by changing people’s expectations and changing the conversation around the water cooler, will we make progress in convincing people that driving drunk is not cool.”

He noted that European countries don’t have the drunken-driving problem we have, even when their citizens drink more.

I said in an earlier column on DUI that the laws we adopt send a message that has a cultural effect. We want the laws to say that here in Washington, driving drunk is inexcusable and unacceptable.

This year, a consistent, but quiet campaign, came forward and spoke loudly. The state’s voice on this issue should remain loud with action to match. And as we celebrate Independence Day, let’s hope the message has been heard.

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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