State lawmakers will act on a bill that wasn’t making progress in Olympia until two heartbreaking accidents brought a new urgency to pass tougher drunken-driving legislation.
A driver, who already had a DUI case pending, allegedly spent the night drinking with friends and was so confused about how to get home to Tacoma, according to investigators, that instead of heading south on I-5, he ended up driving the wrong direction on eastbound 520 slamming into another driver.
Prosecutors say Michael Robertson, 25, is responsible for the death of 58-year-old Morgan Williams.
Another driver, with five previous DUI arrests, had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit when he decided to drive March 25.
Investigators say he rammed his vehicle into Judy and Dennis Schulte as they crossed a street in Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood with their daughter-in-law Karina and infant grandson.
Prosecutors say Mark Mullen is responsible for the deaths of the Schultes and critical injuries to Karina and baby Elias.
Who is responsible for keeping people like Robertson and Mullen off the roads?
“The other day I was driving across the 520 bridge myself, just a few hours after that horrible head-on crash, and I felt pain and anger at what that guy had done driving the wrong way,” says State Representative Roger Goodman.
“I also felt the same pain and anger when I heard about the guy driving a truck who plowed down a family in the middle of the street in the middle of the day. I can’t imagine how the families must feel. It’s beyond contemplation. We just don’t want this to happen again. This has got to stop.”
Goodman is one of the sponsors of a bill to toughen penalties for drunk drivers.
He says it’s legislation that “languished on the House floor” until high-profile accidents led to dozens upon dozens of phone calls from constituents asking lawmakers to do something about those who shouldn’t be behind the wheel in the first place.
House Bill 1482 addresses impaired driving. Goodman says it was one of the bills that was overlooked the same day lawmakers “were arguing for eight-and-a-half hours about gun control legislation.”
He’s called an emergency meeting today (Tuesday) of Washington’s Impaired Driving Working Group to “bring this one back to life” with additional amendments.
The group of lawmakers and officials with an interest in reducing drunk driving has successfully pushed many laws since its formation in 2007, including last year’s increase in the maximum sentence for vehicular homicide while intoxicated from about three years to over eight years.
The bill would reduce the number of misdemeanors that count toward a felony DUI.
“Right now, a fifth DUI becomes a felony. People think that’s ridiculous and I agree,” says Goodman.
Goodman has a plan for people who have a propensity to drink and drive even after an arrest. He wants to require that ignition-interlock devices be installed in a vehicle before a driver could get their car out of an impound lot.
Another amendment would fund more Washington State Patrol officers to follow up on cases where those convicted of DUI have been ordered to get an ignition-interlock installed.
The Department of Licensing says there are about 43,000 people in the state who are supposed to have the devices which prevents them from starting a car if there is alcohol on their breath, but only about 26,000 are listed in a database as following through with the court requirement.
Only three state troopers are assigned to check on ignition-interlock cases. Goodman wants to increase that number. He wants between 10 and 12 troopers doing that job.
The legislation also increases the penalty for driving the wrong way on a road while intoxicated – something that was proposed before last week’s 520 crash.
One idea that will not be included is sobriety checkpoints. Goodman says he wants consensus and the checkpoints are too controversial.
The practice of using road blocks to catch drunk drivers ended in Washington in the late 1980s after the state Supreme Court found it unconstitutional.
Goodman estimates the legislation proposed to strength state DUI laws and penalties would cost between $10 million and $15 million.
“We’re talking about road safety and there is a compelling state interest here,” says Goodman. “Attitudes toward drunk driving have changed and we need laws to reinforce the feeling that it’s not acceptable to drink and drive. Ever.”
By LINDA THOMAS