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Editorial: Senate bill that tightens DUI law makes sense

With movement on the state budget imperceptible, word that Washington legislators are making progress on a more restrictive driving-under-the-influence law shows there is indeed life in Olympia, and intelligent life at that.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee has endorsed legislation sponsored by Sen. Mike Padden that will assure justice is swift and sure for drivers who venture onto state highways under the influence of alcohol or drugs, including newly legalized marijuana. This is a bill Padden introduced relatively late in the Legislature’s regular session with the support of Gov. Jay Inslee, and we questioned whether lawmakers would have the time to fully consider what was then an 80-page bill.

It’s 87 pages long now, but with little else to do but await word on whatever compromise will come out of budget talks among legislative leaders and the governor, Senate Bill 5912 has received the consideration it deserves.

Deserves because one-third of driving fatalities in Washington – 156 in 2011 – involved impaired drivers. The national number remains close to 10,000. The toll in Washington is among the nation’s lowest because DUI laws have become stricter, especially in the application of breathalyzer technology and ignition locks.

SB 5912 would require 4,500 more drivers arrested for DUI to use ignition locks that will not allow offenders to start a car with a blood-alcohol level above 0.04, half the level for a finding of impaired driving. Repeat offenders would get less slack: A fourth offense is a felony.

Drunks driving the wrong way on multilane highways, or with children in the car, would be subject to steeper penalties.

Three counties and two cities can pilot 24/7, twice-a-day breathalyzer testing that has curbed drunken driving and domestic violence in other states. It’s unfortunate all jurisdictions will not be able to implement the program.

There are other shortcomings.

Supporters of marijuana legalization are unhappy with the bill, which subjects drivers with 5 nanograms of marijuana’s intoxicant, THC, in the blood to the same penalties as drivers with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or above. Legalization supporters say that level of THC will ensnare medical marijuana users, as well as those who have not used the drug for many hours, or days, prior to being pulled over.

They argue the Washington law will, in effect, recriminalize marijuana despite little evidence that low levels in the blood impair driving. The Washington State Patrol’s common-sense response: If drivers do not exhibit impairment, they will not be pulled over.

The other issue is cost.

The bill’s fiscal note indicates additional enforcement and incarceration will be expensive for the state, counties and cities. At some point, new costs will have to be weighed against diminishing returns.

We’re not there yet.

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