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Published April 30 2013

Forum editorial: Message sent to DUI offenders

We can hope that Monday will be remembered as the day North Dakota took a decisive step toward getting drunken drivers off the road. That’s when Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed a bill that stiffens penalties for drunken driving. It creates four new felonies, including criminal vehicular homicide, which carries a mandatory three-year prison sentence. The law is not everything we would have wanted in a comprehensive crackdown on drunken driving. Most significantly, it lacks mandatory jail sentences for first-time drunken-driving offenders. Nonetheless, the new law sends a strong message that drinking and driving are not condoned and will be seriously punished.

It took a pair of appalling tragedies caused by drunken drivers – occurring on two consecutive days last summer – to provide the impetus for complacent lawmakers to act. Aaron, Allison and Brielle Deutscher, of West Fargo, along with an unborn child, were killed when struck by a drunken driver going the wrong way on Interstate 94 near Jamestown. The next day, Juan Ruiz and Sandy Hernandez lost their two sons, Cyris and Alaries, when an intoxicated driver ran them over as they slept in their tent while camping at Lake Metigoshe. Both families helped to push for the tougher penalties, and both were present for Monday’s bill signing.

The human tragedy, of course, is much larger. Last year, 87 alcohol-related fatalities were recorded in North Dakota; that’s 51 percent of all fatalities. So far this year, 12 have died on North Dakota roads from alcohol-related crashes. Each and every one of those deaths was preventable. Early in the legislative debate, as an excuse for doing nothing, some lawmakers said the stubborn drunken-driving problem is embedded in a culture of casual acceptance of excessive alcohol use. That’s precisely the point, and one of the strongest ways to attack that wink-and-nod acceptance of alcohol abuse is to pass strong laws that send a signal and deter irresponsible behavior.

The new law carries significant increases in mandatory jail sentences for repeat offenders. It adds a new charge of aggravated driving under the influence for first-time offenders whose blood-alcohol content is more than twice the legal limit. It mandates enrollment in the 24/7 sobriety program for anyone convicted of two or more DUI offenses, requiring offenders to submit to twice-daily breath tests or wear ankle bracelets that measure intoxication levels. It includes $360,000 for statewide education programs about the dangers of drinking and driving.

Those are meaningful steps that will save lives. Proponents of even stiffer penalties for drunken drivers should keep the pressure on for mandatory jail sentences for first-time offenders. The argument against mandatory jail sentences was the expense of housing more inmates. Future legislation should provide state funding to eliminate that excuse. North Dakota can afford to keep its roads safe from drunken drivers to spare families from the needless pain the grieving Deutscher and Ruiz-Hernandez families must endure.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.