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At a loss: Weak drunken driving laws could cost state $9M
By DAN DeLEO ~ The Patriot Ledger
Drunken driving foes say the state will continue losing millions of dollars in federal highway money unless lawmakers get tough on repeat offenders.
The state stands to lose $9 million in federal money that could be used to repair roads and bridges because its penalties for chronic drunken drivers don't meet federal minimum standards.
"We're tired of the carnage drunk drivers, and, in particular, repeat offenders cause on our roads," said House Republican leader Bradley Jones Jr., who has proposed legislation to correct the problem. The legislation has the backing of Gov. Mitt Romney. "We're in tight times and we're losing millions of dollars every year. That's just not smart."
During the past four years, the state has had to divert $24 million in federal money to a state safety program, rather than to the Department of Transportation and Construction. Another $9 million would be diverted when the federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1 if the law is not passed.
Jones' bill would establish an automatic one-year license suspension for second-time drunken drivers, require all repeat offenders to undergo alcohol and drug assessment by the state as a condition of parole or probation, and force repeat offenders with hardship licenses to install ignition interlocking devices in their vehicles.
Currently, a second-time offender may seek a "hardship" license through the Registry of Motor Vehicles after six months; assessment and treatment are not mandated by law but left to a judges' discretion. An ignition lock law does not exist.
The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Vinnie deMacedo, R-Plymouth.
The Legislature has one of the weakest records in the country when it comes to fighting chronic drunken driving. The state was given a D-minus grade by Mothers Against Drunk Driving two years ago; the Legislature received an F.
Secretary of Transportation Daniel Grabauskas said the state can't afford to continue losing federal highway dollars because of insufficient drunken driving laws.
The bill will be taken up next month after the budget debate. Shawn Feddeman, a Romney spokesman, said the governor is a strong supporter of the legislation. "This is a priority issue, and we hope the Legislature considers it seriously this session," she said.
Massachusetts lawmakers, many of whom are also defense attorneys, have a history of putting up stiff opposition to tougher drunken driving laws. The state was the last in the nation to pass the "per se" law, which defines a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher as irrefutable proof that a person is legally drunk. That law was passed last year under the threat of losing $5.4 million in highway money.
A Patriot Ledger special report published this past fall detailed the myriad of deficiencies in the state's drunken driving laws, including the lack of laws that target repeat offenders.
The series described how Massachusetts' drunken driving laws are more lenient than those in other states, how judges have wide latitude in sentencing and how chronic drunken drivers claim hardship to get their licenses back.
An overloaded court system, cutbacks in alcohol treatment also contribute to the problem, according to prosecutors, police and anti-drunken-driving advocates.
Massachusetts has one of the nation's worst track records for dealing with drunken drivers, both first-time and habitual offenders. Only four states have a greater percentage of alcohol-related fatalities than Massachusetts, federal highway safety reports show. And while the percentage of fatalities caused by drunken driving has declined nationally during the past 20 years, Massachusetts' rate has declined less than the national average, and only marginally since 1993.
Last month, the Legislature for the fourth straight year let a bill die that would have toughened penalties for drunken drivers who put children at risk.
The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, called for the creation of a mandatory sentence of at least 60 days for a drunken driver who has a child age 14 or under in the car.
The bill was before the Criminal Justice Committee, which failed to vote on it by last week's deadline. Instead, committee members voted to place the bill into a "study," often a tactic used to quietly kill an unpopular measure.
Dan DeLeo may be reached by clicking here.
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