Published December 19 2012
Editorial: Proposed DUI law good startA change in North Dakota’s drunken-driving law could be meaningful and effective. But first the bill, which is endorsed by at least three prominent elected Republicans, has to pass a Republican-dominated Legislature that has a history of doing as little as possible to get drunken drivers off the state’s roads.
It’s no small hurdle, as Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Tuesday during a news conference announcing the legislation. Here’s what the attorney general said about the legislation, which is primarily the work of Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee:
“Make no mistake about it. This is a tough bill, and this is one that is not going to be an easy one to get passed because too many people in North Dakota think that you’re entitled to one free bite at a DUI, that subsequent offenses aren’t all that serious and that this isn’t a problem that we need to really, truly address on a serious level here in North Dakota.”
And there, in a few well-chosen words, is precisely the shape of the state’s deadly culture of alcohol abuse. Stenehjem’s understanding of the situation is shared by Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who with the attorney general and Rep. Koppelman announced the DUI proposal. Still, they suspect the task of toughening DUI laws will be an uphill slog.
It should not be, especially in light of current statistics that confirm road deaths associated with drunken driving are up in the state. Public safety and public health are primary responsibilities of government, and the escalation of deaths caused by drunken driving is a public safety/health issue if there ever was one.
If passed, the Koppelman bill would impose mandatory jail for first-time DUI offenders, thus joining 15 other states with a similar penalty. Penalties would escalate with subsequent offenses. Fines would rise, and repeat offenders would be subject to more intense sobriety monitoring.
It’s a start. It points the way. It sends a strong signal to an alcohol abuse-friendly culture: Change is afoot. The other elements of the culture – families that wink when kids drink, an alcohol industry that sends mixed messages, weak-kneed county attorneys and look-the-other- way bar owners – eventually have to be on board if the long-term effort to make roads safer is to succeed.
Critics of the proposed legislation say it does not go far enough, that it’s not tough enough. Maybe. But legislating is the art of the possible. The Koppelman bill is a significant step in the right direction. A good step, but a first step.
Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.