Lawmakers Crack Down On Drunk Drivers

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(Host) Lawmakers in Montpelier are moving on a number of fronts to crack down on drunk drivers.

As VPR’s John Dillon reports, the legislative action was prompted by two recent tragedies.

(Dillon) The House Judiciary Committee has been working for weeks on a bill known as "Nick’s Law."  It’s named after 18 year old Nick Fournier who was killed in 2007 when the car he was riding in was struck by a drunk driver going the wrong way on the Interstate.

The bill says judges should impose a five year sentence for driving under the influence with death or serious injury resulting. Hinesburg Democrat Bill Lippert chairs the House Judiciary Committee. He says the bill does not set an absolute mandatory minimum sentence – but does send a very clear message to judges.

(Lippert) "It’s actually an advisory minimum where the judge can sentence below that where there’s specific facts and circumstances and it’s – quote – ‘in the interest of justice and safety.’ We expect and understand that would be a rare case. But we historically have believed that it’s important for judges to actually exercise their judging ability."

(Host) The bill also strengthens penalties for repeat DUI offenders, and says it’s illegal to loan a vehicle to someone who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Separate legislation passed by the Senate makes it a felony to try to escape from police if the driver kills or seriously injures someone. That bill was prompted by the death of 43-year-old Katherine Borneman in December. She was killed by a Burlington driver who led police on a car chase. The driver had four previous drunken driving convictions. Lippert said the House and Senate divided their responsibilities on DUI issues.

(Lippert) They took the lead on passing a bill for attempting to elude, increasing penalties and looking more carefully at that. That bill is now here in the House. We will be taking that bill up in House Judiciary next week. It’s a component of what I believe is a package of responses to these tragedies."

(Dillon) Lippert said DUI fatalities and serious injures have actually declined in Vermont as a result of increased enforcement. But he says the most intractable problem involves repeat DUI offenders.

(Lippert) "We have returned to this issue, and we will frankly continue to return to this issue. This is an ongoing chronic problem. I believe our commitment has been significant and I believe our commitment will need to continue over time."

(Dillon) Last year, the Legislature passed a bill that authorizes the use of ignition devices that allow cars to start only if the driver passes a breath test.

Lippert says the bill was another in a series of steps to keep drunk drivers off the road. That legislation takes effect in July.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.


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