Senate committee OKs tougher impaired driving law

OLYMPIA — A Senate committee on Tuesday advanced a bill to make changes to the state’s impaired driving laws, including making driving under the influence a felony on the fourth conviction, rather than the current law that has it at five within 10 years.

The legislation was sparked by recent fatal accidents in the state, including a March incident where a suspected drunken driver slammed into a family crossing the street in a residential Seattle neighborhood, a crash that critically injured a 10-day-old child and his mother and killed his grandparents.

The measure approved by the Senate Law &Justice Committee would require a mandatory arrest if a person has a prior offense within the past decade and increases mandatory minimum jail time for repeat offenders. If someone with a prior offense is arrested again on DUI, under the measure, as a condition of their release, a court must require that an interlock device be installed on the person’s car with proof to be filed with the court within 10 days, or the court can require participation in a sobriety monitoring program, or both.

The bill now heads to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

“This bill, while it still has a ways to go, does do some very positive things,” said Sen. Mike Padden, a Republican from Spokane Valley who is the main sponsor in the Senate.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate and Gov. Jay Inslee have had several meetings on the proposed bill.

Not included in the bill were some initial ideas put forth by Inslee, including prohibiting people from purchasing alcohol for 10 years after a third conviction on drunken driving.

Inslee has said that the measure is a priority during the special legislative session that started Monday and he was happy to see the bill move out of committee.

While the bill was unanimously approved by the Senate committee, some Democrats expressed concern about the current lack of funding sources and the possibility that local governments would be stuck with the costs. Several amendments were rejected in committee, including one that would have extended a temporary beer tax to pay for the fiscal impact that would come from prosecuting, defending and incarcerating more drunken drivers.

“I don’t have an issue with the policy on much of what’s in this bill. I have an issue with the lack of funding sources and insufficient treatment being provided,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle.

Padden promised that costs would be examined by the fiscal committee.

“I think there was an understanding there that we go forward with the policy first,” he said. “I think people are committed to seeing this is paid for, or else there shouldn’t be a bill.”

Inslee said the benefits of the bill outweighed the costs.

“These lives that we intend to be saving as a result of this is worth this investment. I’m convinced of it,” he said.

According to the Washington State Patrol, there are about 40,000 DUI arrests a year. In 2011, the most recent data available, there were 454 traffic accident fatalities, 199 of which a driver was impaired by either drugs or alcohol, he said. Of that 199, 135 were impaired by alcohol only. In 2007, of 571 total traffic fatalities, 272 involved people who were impaired while driving.

Rep. Roger Goodman, a Democrat from Kirkland who is the sponsor of the House measure, said that the Senate approach is “very much the same” as his companion bill in the House, which could be voted on in committee as early as next week.

Goodman said that he and Padden and Inslee have another meeting scheduled for Wednesday.

“I’m very confident that we are going to enact significant DUI reforms in this special session,” he said. “It’s a top priority for us.”

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