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Fix, don’t weaken DUI law

A proposal to make changes in North Dakota’s new and tougher DUI law might have merit, but watchwords should be “proceed with caution.”

The law was changed in the 2013 session of the Legislature in response to horrific fatal traffic accidents that were caused by drunken drivers. Concern about more drunken drivers on the roads and the deaths and injuries associated with drunken-driver crashes had been intensifying for years. Lawmakers made a tweak here and there but generally had been reluctant to make the law significantly tougher on violators. That changed with at least two fatal vehicle accidents that involved drunken drivers.

The new law, which calls for bigger fines, mandatory education and a quicker trigger for jail time, has been in effect only a few months. Objections to its provisions seem to center on some elements of enforcement and the alleged additional burdens on the court system. Fair enough.

But, as they say, let’s not toss out the baby with the bathwater. The law needs to have sharp teeth. The new penalties, which are sharper teeth (not yet sharp enough, some would conclude), need more time to demonstrate their effectiveness. The intent of the law’s sponsors is primarily to send a message to motorists who driving drunk will cost a lot, both in dollars and possible jail time. The penalties should be applied as intended, even if it means prosecutors and courts have to adjust.

If, however, it can be legitimately shown that specific requirements of the law are unnecessarily cumbersome or complicated, then tweaks and fixes should be done, either administratively, if possible, or by the 2015 Legislature. And if it can be proved the DUI enforcement and prosecution structure needs more resources to enforce a tougher law, then it is the Legislature’s responsibility to respond. The law is a mandate, and it should not be an under-funded mandate.

As the discussion unfolds in the run-up to the 2015 legislative session, any contemplated adjustments must be considered in the context of keeping the law very harsh and making it harsher, if initial results warrant.

The rash of DUI-related deaths and injuries is a plague on North Dakota. Public safety is among government’s priorities, and for the first time in its history the state has the money to put into effective DUI enforcement and prevention. If government at all levels can’t get a handle on DUI, then government is a failure.

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