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Published February 28 2013

Forum editorial: DUI bill a start, but just a start

Passing a tougher drinking and driving law in North Dakota is the right thing to do, but a new law alone won’t solve the problem of drunken drivers killing themselves and others on state roadways. The House easily approved an amended bill and sent it on to the Senate. The amendments somewhat weakened the penalties in the legislation, said advocates for tougher laws, but the bill’s changes in DUI law are significant.

Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, is primary sponsor of the bill. He was prompted to act by two horrific fatal accidents, both involving drunken drivers. The depth of anger about the cause of those tragedies was communicated to lawmakers.

Koppelman and others worked closely with families of the accident victims and came up with what has to be one of the biggest changes in DUI law in decades. The result was approval of the bill, which, as amended, calls for a higher drunken-driving threshold and lesser mandatory jail time. Bill advocates, including families that lost loved ones in recent accidents, wanted a stricter DUI threshold and penalties but supported the legislation.

It’s a start. Instead of four days of mandatory jail time for a first offense, the amended bill calls for one day. Instead of a 0.15 blood alcohol, the amended bill calls for a 0.21 level. Among the objections to stricter penalties was that more arrests and a four-day jail mandate would be expensive for counties. Expensive? What’s a life worth? And in a state bragging about its nation-leading prosperity, surely funds could be set aside to offset county costs.

Koppelman put it best when he told his colleagues what they all know: that North Dakota has a culture that tolerates drunken driving. He further reminded them that deaths and injuries caused by drunken drivers are reaching epidemic proportions. It follows that when abuse of a state-sanctioned privilege (licensed driving) is out of control, the state has an unambiguous obligation to reduce the threat drunken drivers pose on public highways.

The Senate still has to act on the legislation, so there is a chance stricter penalties will be reinstated. While the state’s alcohol culture sometimes seems an insurmountable barrier to common sense, maybe the epidemic Koppelman so aptly describes will compel senators to do the right thing.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum

management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.