For a variety of reasons, traffic fatalities have dropped precipitously over the past four decades. But even with improved safety, the Legislature is wise to consider tightening Washington law regarding impaired driving.
House Bill 1504, which passed the Senate last week (with support from all Southwest Washington senators), would make driving under the influence a felony charge if a suspect has three DUI convictions in the previous 15 years. Currently, three convictions in the previous 10 years can lead to a felony charge.
The change seems reasonable — and necessary. The Seattle Times reports that the adjustment to the law would lead to an average of 129 additional felony DUI charges per year, with felony charges carrying the possibility of prison time and other penalties not associated with misdemeanor charges. The Times frames the discussion around the case of Joseph Shaun Goodman, who is facing his eighth DUI arrest in 26 years; under the 10-year window, Goodman has narrowly avoided felony charges throughout his checkered driving history.
Meanwhile, the issue points out how public policy and education have helped make the roads safer for all of us.
In 1979, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 3.34 fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled. That number has steadily declined, with 2017 seeing 1.16 fatalities per 100 million miles. Even with increased population leading to more miles being driven, the total number of deaths declined by about one-third.
The reasons are numerous. Among them is that in the 1980s, under pressure from advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the federal government, states increased the legal drinking age from as low as 18 to 21. That has triggered a sharp decline in incidents of drunk driving.
Another reason is laws mandating seat-belt use and the advent of three-point belts that stretch over the shoulder. Airbags and required car seats for young children also have contributed to the decline in fatalities.
In addition, there have been improvements to vehicle safety, with anti-lock brakes being introduced in the 1970s and with the addition of electronic stability control. Since 2011, all American cars have had stability control, which detects skidding and applies the brakes to individual wheels to stop the slide. According to a 2009 report by the NHTSA, the combination of technologies reduced fatal crashes in cars by 15 percent and in light trucks and vans by 27 percent.
All of those innovations have combined to reduce annual traffic fatalities from about 22 per 100,000 people in the late 1970s (the toll was even higher in the early 1970s) to about 11 deaths per 100,000 people today.
None of that, however, can overcome the danger posed by irresponsible drivers. In 2017, the Legislature strengthened the state’s distracted driving laws in response to the relatively new scourge or drivers using cellphones. Now, the increased penalties for habitually driving while impaired — the penalties apply to marijuana use, as well — have broad support from lawmakers; they passed the House 96-0 and the Senate 47-1.
The need appears evident. While statistics show that most drivers with a DUI conviction do not receive another, there are chronic offenders who continue to place other motorists and pedestrians at risk. Increasing the state’s ability to charge irresponsible drivers with a felony can help keep our roads safe.