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State makes it tough on drunk drivers

The Associated Press

HARRISBURG (AP) — Two days before a federal deadline, the state House of Representatives unanimously sent to Gov. Ed Rendell a bill to lower Pennsylvania’s legal blood-alcohol limit for motorists and make broad revisions to the state’s 20-year-old drunken-driving law.

Before the House began its session, the governor said he would sign the measure reducing the blood-alcohol limit from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent.

“I think it’s a good, sound bill,” Rendell said during a news conference announcing a scholarship program for state university students.

The bill toughens penalties for drivers with especially high blood-alcohol levels and ensures that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has the authority to install an ignition interlock device in the car of a repeat offender for one year whether that is ordered by a judge or not.

Without a 0.08 blood-alcohol limit in force by Wednesday, the state faces losing as much as $11 million in federal transportation dollars, or 2 percent of certain highway construction funds. The federal government also requires states to include an ignition interlock provision in the legislation, which has been part of Pennsylvania law for two years.

The bill establishes increasing levels of punishment for higher blood-alcohol levels — 0.08 to 0.099; 0.10 to 0.159; and 0.16 and up — all becoming more severe with each additional offense. In addition, it would force offenders to receive drug and alcohol treatment as a condition of their sentences.

Once the bill is signed, the lower blood-alcohol threshold will take effect immediately, while most of the other provisions, including the tiered penalty system, would go into effect on Feb. 1, said Rep. Richard Geist, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

“In the long run, this is going to drive deaths way down,” said Geist, a Blair County Republican. “For those who want to test the system and be a repeat offender, this law is very, very hard.”

Last year, alcohol-related deaths accounted for 41 percent of all traffic deaths in Pennsylvania, a proportion that matches national statistics, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Another provision of the bill would prevent offenders who would normally have an opportunity to clear their records by entering the state’s Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program from doing so if any of their passengers are children younger than 14.

“It was our feeling that the children don’t have a choice,” said GOP Rep. Kate Harper, of Montgomery County.

Nancy Oppedal, past chairwoman of Pennsylvania’s MADD chapter, said she has advocated for a tougher drunken-driving law since her husband and two children were killed 14 years ago by an underage, repeat offender. The driver also was killed.

“I’d like to think that if this law had been in place, if (the driver) had been brought into treatment … that this tragedy could be prevented,” she said.

Pennsylvania is one of the last states to pass such a measure.


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