‘It’s ridiculous’: Heartbroken family members plead for tougher DUI laws

Mar 21, 2017, 1:49 PM
DUI law, DUI laws, MADD, drunk, drugged, distracted,...
State Senator Mike Padden continues his fight to toughen Washington state's DUI law. (AP)

Karen Bartlett has had to recount her husband’s brutal death at the hands of a drunk driver too many times.

Related: Senate Republicans set to release state budget plan

Russ Bartlett was walking down the sidewalk at 9:30 a.m. in Yakima when a drunk driver behind the wheel of a motor home hit him.

“I was married to him for 50 years. We have 11 children and five great-grandchildren. He was the love of my life. And when he was taken the morning of May 29, 2014, our whole family was destroyed,” she somberly told a house committee in Olympia on Monday.

Bartlett was among a number of people testifying in support of a change to the law that would make DUI a felony after four offenses.

“Get with it and get this bill passed, because we’ve been here five times. And it’s ridiculous,” Bartlett said.

“We’re here again,” said Sen. Mike Padden (R-Spokane).

Related: MADD adds another ‘D’ to combat impaired driving

Padden has led the effort to stiffen the felony DUI laws for a number of years, leading to Senate passage multiple times.

But the measure has repeatedly died in the House.

“We know that there’s going to be less victims of DUI if we pass this because we know that the people most likely to have vehicular assaults and vehicular homicides are repeat offenders,” Padden said. “We know that this is an avoidable crime.

Under the proposed change, someone convicted of DUI a fourth time would spend up to 17 months in jail.

“A DUI driver is one of the most dangerous persons in our community. Impaired driving kills more than firearms,” said Deputy King County Prosecutor Amy Freedheim. She’s spent the past 17 years prosecuting every DUI death – vehicular homicide and vehicular assault – in the county.

Which begs the question: why do we allow repeat offenders back out on the streets over and over?

The simple answer is money. Though the Senate has passed the measure before, opponents have repeatedly tabled the measure in the House by arguing the state and counties can’t afford to put so more people behind bars.

Larry Shannon with the Washington State Association for Justice argues the cost is far greater not to lock up repeat offenders before they kill again.

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stresses that each fatality caused by driving under the influence costs society directly and indirectly over $10 million per death,” Shannon said.

According to a study by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Washington state is the most lenient in the country when it comes to the severity of DUI laws.

Indiana, Minnesota, New York, and Oklahoma all make DUI a felony on the second offense within five to 10 years. Twenty-two states make it a felony on the third offense. Nineteen others including Oregon go with the fourth offense.

It’s estimated the vast majority of repeat impaired drivers get behind the wheel under the influence 80 times before they’re caught.

Prosecutor Freedheim challenges contention by the Washington State Department of Corrections that the state can’t afford the cost put more impaired drivers in prison.

Freedheim says most spend upwards of nine months in the local jail awaiting trial and get time served once they’re convicted and sentenced, so they don’t spend their full time in prison.

“We need to at some point protect people and we need to at some point take these people off the road,” she said.

The House Public Safety Committee will vote on the measure next week. It would then need the approval of the House Appropriations Committee before going to the full House.

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‘It’s ridiculous’: Heartbroken family members plead for tougher DUI laws