West Virginia Lawmakers Delay Drunk Driver Lock Expansion

By | March 18, 2009

A proposal to put interlocks in the vehicles of every West Virginian convicted of drunken driving appears to be on hold this year while lawmakers await the results of an earlier expansion of the program.

But a West Virginia University School of Law student who proposed the measure in a draft bill said passing the bill now would address critical shortfalls in how the program works.

Jennifer Tampoya presented a draft bill last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Her recommendations include mandating the interlocks — breath-measuring devices which block vehicles from starting if their driver’s blood alcohol content is above the legal limit — for all offenders. The measure also calls for creating more opportunities for rehabilitation.

Tampoya was moved to research the state’s drunken driving laws and suggest changes after five people were killed near Morgantown in 2007 in a crash blamed on a drunken driver with prior DUI convictions. Her ideas got a boost when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, agreed to sponsor a bill modeled on her proposal.

Until last June, interlocks were only mandated for repeat offenders. A law passed in 2008 now requires them for first offenders with a blood alcohol level exceeding .15, and offers them on a voluntary basis to first-time offenders in exchange for a reduction in the time drivers’ licenses are suspended.

Tampoya said only a small fraction of the state’s convicted drunken drivers were successfully completing the interlock program prior to the passage of last year’s law.

In 2006, for example, over 9,000 licenses were revoked for drunken driving, while 514 interlock devices were installed, and just 324 drivers successfully completed the interlock program.

Since the passage of the 2008 law, the numbers have been growing.

From October to December last year, 263 people had interlocks installed in their vehicles, up from 184 in the same period in 2007, according to Deputy Commissioner of the Division of Motor Vehicles Steve Dale.

It’s too early to say whether there will be a corresponding reduction in recidivism, though, Dale said.

Six states — New Mexico, Arizona, Louisiana, Illinois, Nebraska and Washington –require interlocks for all drunken driving offenders, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which promotes the policy as a way to curb repeat offenses and save lives.

But the relatively recent expansion of West Virginia’s interlock program means lawmakers are willing to give it time to succeed before contemplating further growth to the program.

“I think the idea has merit, I just don’t know if the timing is right this session,” said Kessler. “We might want to wait and see, and maybe come back next year.”

Kessler’s committee has a bill based on Tampoya’s recommendations, and Kessler has appointed a subcommittee to look at its recommendations along with other bills touching on drunken driving.

One of Tampoya’s proposals that is drawing lawmaker interest is for “staggered sentencing,” in which DUI convicts have their sentences broken into three equal portions, each separated by periods of supervised probation.

The first portion of the sentence is spent in jail or prison, but if the offender successfully completes court-ordered requirements of the probation, like graduating from rehabilitation programs, the other jail time can be waived.

Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, a member of the subcommittee studying the proposal, said the focus on rehabilitation would reduce repeat offenses in a way that jail or home confinement does not.

“We need to focus on getting these people some help when we have them in custody,” he said.

After several years of decline, West Virginia saw its number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities rise from 105 in 2006 to 142 in 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Numbers like those make Tampoya hope the legislation she suggested will become law this year.

“They may pare it down to some degree, but I’d like to see a bill with those provisions pass this session, although I realize that’s optimistic,” she said.

Topics Legislation Personal Auto Virginia West Virginia

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