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LIFE ON WHEELS

Legislature Considering a Second Generation of Drunk-Driving Laws

July 20, 1989|JAN HOFMANN

As if there weren't already plenty of reasons not to drink and drive, the Legislature may soon be adding to the list.

The state has, of course, gotten much tougher on drunk drivers in the past decade or so, as have the other 49, in varying degrees. But now a second generation of laws is being considered. And while the nation may be turning kinder and gentler, these new proposals are anything but.

In fact, they are so tough you could have your license suspended and confiscated the minute after you blow into the Breathalyzer or refuse to do so. And if you're a repeat offender or if you kill or injure someone, you could also forfeit your car.

The legislative flurry is in response to pressure from both Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the federal government. MADD uses a corps of dedicated volunteers to lobby for changes; the feds rely on funding as an incentive.

"We're getting better organized," says Janet Cater, executive director of MADD's Orange County chapter. "This year we set up a legislative committee."

But Cater says the legislators can take some of the credit. "A lot of the bills are ideas they came up with themselves," she says.

Half a dozen drunk-driving-related bills already approved by the Senate came up before the Assembly Public Safety Committee this week. Another Senate bill that previously cleared that hurdle is pending before the Assembly's Ways and Means Committee, and an eighth bill--one that originated in the Assembly--is wending its way through the Capitol as well.

The bill closest to becoming law is SB 408, which would reduce the legal blood-alcohol limit from 0.10% to 0.08%.

Cater says MADD has been pushing for the reduction because of evidence that even low levels of alcohol in the system can impair driving ability.

Another of MADD's priorities is the administrative revocation bill, which would authorize a law-enforcement officer to confiscate the driver's license of a drunk-driving suspect who either fails or refuses to take a blood-alcohol test. Drivers have a choice of a blood, breath or urine test.

Under current law, drivers are notified by mail that their licenses have been suspended, and many drunk drivers manage to cheat the system by claiming that they never received such a notice.

"You see it all the time when you run driver's license checks through the computer," says Officer Ken Daily of the California Highway Patrol's station in San Juan Capistrano. "It'll come back, 'Suspension notice, no proof of receipt.' "

Although officers can then seize the license, they have to allow the offender to drive away because the suspension has just gone into effect, Daily says.

Offenders "play a lot of games," Cater says. "They hire attorneys, and the attorneys stall and drag, and the longer they stall and drag, the longer they keep their licenses."

Twenty-three states already have such laws, and Cater says the number of traffic fatalities in those states dropped dramatically after they were instituted.

"In Minnesota, which was the first state to do it, fatalities dropped 50%," Cater says. "In North Dakota, they dropped 37%." The average reduction is 9%.

"In California, that would save 248 lives a year. If we had results as high as Minnesota, we could save 1,255 lives a year. This is the one bill that research indicates would have the most impact."

Administrative revocation has already been upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, Cater says, because "a driver's license is not a right. It's a privilege, and as such it can be regulated."

In addition, the federal government is offering incentive grants to states that adopt administrative revocation laws. California stands to gain $48 million over a five-year period, Cater says.

Another bill, this one sponsored by Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), would reopen the state's criminal-justice computers to all drunk-driving arrests. "The way it is now," Cater says, "if you're arrested in Los Angeles County and then again in Orange County before you've been convicted on the first charge, there is no way for the district attorney in Orange County to know that you have charges pending elsewhere. You can plead out as a first offender, when it really isn't your first offense."

Bergeson's bill is a holdover from last year, when it died in committee.

Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim) is the sponsor of two of the bills. One would require counties to establish alcohol- and drug-education programs for first offenders, which Orange County is already doing. The other Seymour bill would reduce the legal blood-alcohol limit for commercial drivers and boaters from 0.10% to 0.04%, bringing state law in conformance with federal.

Then there's the vehicle-forfeiture bill. It provides that if a driver is convicted of felony drunk driving or if he has a previous history of drunk driving, "his vehicle could be declared a nuisance and sold," Cater says.

California may also join the majority of states in enacting a measure called a "dram shop law," which holds the server of alcohol liable for damage done by a drunk driver. "This is a compromise bill," Cater says. "It applies to bar owners only and exempts restaurant owners. But it's a start."

The Assembly has contributed the child endangerment bill, which would establish a separate offense for drunk drivers who are caught with a minor in the car.

Even if all the bills were approved, however, MADD would still be pressing for more, Cater says. "We'd also like to see mandatory blood-alcohol testing in fatal and injury cases and a law that would confiscate the license plates of repeat offenders."

MADD doesn't plan to let up in its fight anytime soon.

"When the only people that are dying are a few drunk drivers that kill themselves, at that point we'll consider it over," Cater says. "Ultimately, success will be in the statistics."

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