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By Sen. Mike Padden
R-Spokane Valley 

Impaired driver bills advance


Last updated 5/19/2023 at 9:25am

In recent years, drunk and drug-impaired driving has become a greater problem on Washington’s roads and highways. It is a major reason for the alarming increase in accidents and traffic deaths and injuries.

Just a month ago, a horrible crash happened on Interstate 82 near Sunnyside in which a 20-year-old man who eluded State Patrol troopers eventually drove westbound on eastbound I-82 and collided with an eastbound vehicle. Two children in the other car were killed and the other driver and a third child were injured. The driver, who was determined by a drug-recognition expert to have been under the influence of intoxicants when the crash occurred, has been charged with vehicle homicide, vehicular assault and second-degree murder. Troopers tried repeatedly to stop the driver but called off pursuits because of the state’s restrictive vehicle pursuit law passed in 2021.

According to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Washington road deaths reached a 20-year high in 2021. The 670 traffic deaths that year included 272 involving drug-impaired driving and 155 involving alcohol-impaired driving. In 2020, Washington had 574 traffic fatalities, including 214 involving drug-impaired driving and 135 involving alcohol-impaired driving. The commission has a preliminary estimate of 745 traffic fatalities for 2022. Over half were due to impaired driving.

A key reason behind these sad statistics is how state law treats repeat drunk and drug-impaired drivers, who are the most likely to commit vehicular homicides and vehicular assaults in Washington. Many traffic fatalities in the state involve drivers who have had as many as eight DUI offenses, but the current 10-year “lookback” period on previous DUI convictions is not long enough to allow the state to impose stronger punishment against such offenders.

Fortunately, there is a good chance the Legislature will fix that problem this year. Before the 2023 legislative session even began, I introduced a bipartisan proposal, Senate Bill 5032, which would expand the period for reviewing prior convictions of impaired driving to 15 years, from the 10 years now in state law, when determining whether a new offense of impaired driving is charged as a felony. Under the proposal, any person who has three or more prior DUI offenses within that 15-year lookback period would face a felony, rather than the current penalty of a gross misdemeanor. Furthermore, SB 5032 would give offenders a chance to undergo a highly structured treatment program.

Our state has seen too many accidents and fatalities caused by drunk and drug-impaired drivers, especially repeat offenders. This bill could help reduce traffic deaths.

Repeat DUI offenders are not making mistakes. They have an intentional disregard for personal and public safety. SB 5032 is a tool to hold repeat impaired drivers accountable and to get people the help that they need. This bill can help break the cycle of addiction and will reduce the number of impaired drivers on roadways.

In the 2021 and 2022 sessions, I introduced similar legislation that was passed by the Senate both years, but that bill died in the House both years.

While I would prefer to have the Legislature pass SB 5032 as a stand-alone measure, I’m pleased that it is moving forward this year as part of another proposal to combat drunk driving.

The Senate Law and Justice Committee recently passed House Bill 1493, which would make several changes to the state’s impaired-driving laws. Before doing so, the committee added my amendment that incorporates the SB 5032 language by changing the lookback period for reviewing prior DUI convictions from 10 years to 15 years and by creating a new drug offender sentencing alternative for individuals convicted of felony-level impaired-driving offenses. I’m pleased that the good policy in SB 5032 remains alive as part of HB 1493.

By the time this year’s session ends on April 23, I am hopeful that the Legislature will finally have taken a major step to remove repeat drunk and drug-impaired drivers from our roads and reduce the number of traffic accidents and fatalities in our state.

— Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, is the ranking Republican on the Senate Law and justice Committee.


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