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Crackdown on the roads
Melanie’s Law seen as major step against drunken drivers, but there’s more to do
The Patriot Ledger
Massachusetts has long had a reputation for having some of the weakest drunken driving laws in the country.
After all, the last time Mothers Against Drunk Driving graded states on their efforts to crack down on the crime, the Bay State earned a D-minus, a dubious distinction surpassed only by Montana’s F.
With the passage this week of Melanie’s Bill - named for a 13-year-old Marshfield girl killed by a drunken driver - it’s hard to dispute that the state has taken substantial steps to shed that image.
The bill, signed into law Friday by Gov. Mitt Romney, requires that cars of repeat drunken drivers be equipped with a breath test device that prevents the vehicle from starting if the driver had too much to drink.
It creates two new crimes: manslaughter while operating under the influence, and driving drunk with a child in the car. And it eliminates the 15-day grace period during which someone can legally drive after his license is yanked.
House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi has called the law “maybe one of the toughest drunk driving laws in the country,” a comment echoed by several lawmakers after House and Senate votes Thursday.
But even with the improvements, and despite near universal consensus that Melanie’s Law contains tough measures, Massachusetts has far to go before it will serve as a model for drunken driving laws.
For starters, some of the changes made by Melanie’s Bill simply implement rules that have been in place elsewhere for years.
Take the on-board breath test requirement, for example. Forty-three other states already require the systems, known as ignition interlock devices. California has had them since the early 1990s.
Under Melanie’s Law, Massachusetts will now require ignition interlock devices for the first two years after a repeat offender has his license restored. They will also be required on any car driven by repeat offenders with a hardship license, a limited license that allows someone to drive 12 hours a day before serving a complete suspension.
That requirement certainly isn’t the strictest in the nation.
In New Mexico, even first-time offenders must have the devices installed for one year, and the time frame increases with each subsequent offense. Someone convicted of fourth-offense drunken driving must have an on-board breath test for life.
“Most of the people arrested are first-time offenders, so we’re trying to target first-time offenders,” said S.U. Mahesh, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Transportation.
The child endangerment law, too, is already common across the country.
And while Melanie’s Bill will require alcohol assessment for repeat offenders, the federal government has actually mandated such a program since 1998.
There are also rules on the books in other states that still won’t exist here.
Unlike 39 other states and Washington, D.C., Massachusetts does not require mandatory blood tests for drivers involved in serious crashes. And while 17 states prevent plea bargaining or the reduction of an an alcohol-related offense to a non-alcohol related offense, Massachusetts isn’t among them, according to MADD.
Then there’s the issue of people who refuse to take a breath test.
Supporters of Melanie’s Law argued unsuccessfully that suspensions for first-time offenders who won’t take the breath test need to be beefed up, because many refuse the test knowing convictions are difficult without the evidence. MADD says Massachusetts has the third highest refusal rate in the country.
In some states, refusing to take a breath test is a crime in its own right. In California and Maine, refusal can be admitted at trial.
“The judges will look at that as almost an admission of guilt,” said Lauren Stewart, director of Maine’s Bureau of Highway Safety. “It’s one of the reasons we have so few refusals, I believe.”
Despite those and other limitations, David DeIuliis, a spokesman for Massachusetts MADD, said the passage of Melanie’s Bill is “definitely a step forward.”
“It is a good bill, but what’s really going to make it effective is making sure it’s enforced as well,” he said.
Rep. Frank Hynes, a Marshfield Democrat and strong supporter of Melanie’s Law, said the Legislature in the past has taken a defensive position when it comes to drunken driving, passing laws mostly under threat from federal regulators.
He’s hoping the passage of the law, which was named for one of his constituents, signals a change.
“It gets us 90 percent of the way toward giving people a greater comfort level that Massachusetts’ laws are strong and they send the clear message that drinking and driving don’t mix,” Hynes said.
Karen Eschbacher may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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