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Drunken drivers: A chance for state to get toughBy DAN DeLEO ~ The Patriot Ledger
Often criticized as soft on drunken drivers, Massachusetts legislators today have a chance to crack down on the repeat offenders who pose the greatest danger to the public.
With federal highway money hanging in the balance, the House today was considering a bill that would require chronic drunk drivers to buy and install ignition locking devices on their cars.
Equipped with a breath tester, the devices would keep repeat offenders who are driving with a hardship license from starting their cars when their blood-alcohol level is above the legal limit, .08 percent.
The bill would also increase the mandatory loss of license for repeat offenders to 18 months and keep them from getting a hardship license for at least one year. Under current law, repeat offenders can appeal to the Registry of Motor Vehicles for a hardship license after six months.
The measure would also allow judges to declare a first-time drunken driver with a blood-alcohol level of .15, nearly twice the legal limit, as a problem offender in need of immediate treatment.
When it comes to drunken driving laws, Massachusetts lags behind the rest of the nation. A special report by The Patriot Ledger in November showed holes in a system that frequently allowed repeat offenders to avoid significant jail time and loss of license.
In 2002, Massachusetts had 221 drunken driving deaths. The state had the fifth-highest rate of alcohol-related fatalities, at 48 percent.
The bill before the House today is an important step to reversing those numbers, supporters say.
This measure is appropriate and, hopefully, will have a chilling effect on the injuries and deaths that occur due to drunk driving, said Rep. Frank Hynes, D-Marshfield.
Rep. James Vallee, D-Franklin, the bills sponsor, agreed.
Were getting tougher, and thats the bottom line, Vallee said. Were moving toward less and less tolerance. Drunk driving is not acceptable behavior anymore, and we dont want people to think Massachusetts is a lenient state.
Lawmakers have until the start of the federal fiscal year Oct. 1 to pass the law or lose $9 million in federal road construction money.
Because the states current laws and penalties against repeat drunk drivers do not meet federal minimum standards, lawmakers have had to divert about $24 million to a driver safety education program in recent years.
The bill mirrors legislation filed by Gov. Mitt Romney last year and a bill sponsored by House Republican leader Bradley Jones Jr. of North Reading and Rep. Vinny deMacedo, R-Plymouth.
Massachusetts has some of the weakest drunken driving laws in the country.
Last year the state became the last to adopt a law that defined a .08 blood-alcohol level as irrefutable proof of intoxication. The Legislature acted under the threat of losing federal highway dollars.
Even still, the state received a D-minus grade from Mothers Against Drunk Driving last year.
The bill being debated today would require repeat offenders to undergo an alcohol assessment test conducted by the Department of Public Health.
Russ Matson, a defense lawyer who specializes in drunken driving cases, said he sees no problem with ignition locks. But cutting off hardship licenses for one year, rather than six months, is harsh, he said.
These are people with families, jobs, mortgages to pay, said Matson, who lives and practices in Braintree. You want to reintegrate them into society and become law-abiding citizens again, but this isnt going to help that.
Dan DeLeo may be reached by clicking here.
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