Tougher R.I. Drunk Driving Bill Clears First Legislative Hurdle

Rhode Island House leaders made good this week on their promise to promote legislation to toughen Rhode Island’s drunken driving laws.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 10-4 to approve a bill that would increase the penalties for people who refuse to take Breathalyzer or other tests for blood alcohol content.

The bill died in committee last year, generating rumors that defense attorneys serving in the House conspired to kill it.

Then in November, House Speaker William Murphy, D-West Warwick, appointed a new chairman for the Judiciary Committee, and House leaders held a news conference announcing their support for the bill.

On Tuesday, Rep. Donald Lally, D-Narragansett, the new committee chair, pushed the bill to a vote. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Patrick O’Neill, D-Pawtucket, now goes before the full House.

Rhode Island leads the nation in the number of suspected drunken drivers who refuse to be tested, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Nearly 85 percent of Rhode Island drivers pulled over for drunken driving refuse to take a blood alcohol test, compared to 25 percent nationally.

Drivers who refuse breath, blood and urine tests lose their license for three to six months. O’Neill’s bill would double the suspension to six to 12 months for a first offense.

Drivers would face up to six months in jail the second time they refuse a test and up to one year in jail for additional refusals in a five-year period.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday passed a separate bill that would allow police officers to request a search warrant to draw urine or blood samples from suspected drunken drivers after car accidents that involve serious injury or death.

A similar bill has not been introduced in the House.