Harsher DUI laws considered

Djamila Grossman

PHOENIX – On Aug. 1, 1987, a drunken motorist drove up an Interstate-10 exit ramp in Tucson and plowed through traffic in the opposite direction. He crashed into a car carrying 18-year-old Brenda Axline and her best friend, Tracy Johnson, killing both of them.

The man had four prior DUIs and a valid Arizona driver’s license, said Molly Steffens, Axline’s mother.

Steffens attended a Senate committee meeting Thursday to speak out in support of two bills that would crack down on drunken driving by stepping up current state penalties for extreme DUI offenses.

Both bills passed the Senate Public Safety and Human Services committee unanimously and are awaiting action on the Senate floor.

“”I’m very happy they (the bills) passed, because people need to recognize drunk driving is serious,”” Steffens said. “”These people need to learn. For every arrest a police officer makes, he is saving an innocent victim’s life.””

The bills’ sponsor, Sen. Jim Waring, R-Phoenix, said he introduced the legislation because it is time that drunken drivers are taken off the roads.

“”I hope I’ll scare people straight,”” he said. “”Those folks are causing a good chunk of fatalities. How many lives are ruined because of this?””

SB 1029 would increase the penalties for an extreme DUI if a driver’s blood alcohol content is at least 0.20 percent.

Among the proposed changes are longer jail time, an increased fine and the requirement to use an ignition interlock device upon subsequent DUI convictions.

To get to a 0.20 reading, a person has to drink so much alcohol that most inexperienced drinkers would vomit before reaching that blood-alcohol level, said Detective Herbert Jacobs of the Phoenix Police Department at the meeting.

A person’s vision at that level “”is extremely impaired,”” Jacobs said. “”They cannot see what’s actually in front of them.””

Presently, a DUI is considered extreme if the driver has a blood-alcohol content of at least 0.15 percent.

The other bill, SB 1026, would prohibit a judge from waiving some of the 30-day jail time mandated for a person’s first extreme DUI.

The proposed legislation is “”very, very overdue,”” said Holly Robles, senior advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Tucson. “”I hope it goes all the way through, it’s absolutely necessary.””

Robles said MADD members have long been pushing for stiffer penalties on drunken driving, and she said the bills are a step in the right direction.

Out of 1,177 fatal crashes in Arizona in 2005, 42 percent were alcohol-related, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The national average that year was 39 percent.

Senate Public Safety and Human Services committee chairwoman Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, said she has battled drunken driving for years, despite anger from the liquor industry, whose lobbyists try to stop her bills from passing.

“”I don’t know what it will take for people to get the message,”” she said about the bills. “”I hope this will help.””

The University of Arizona Police Department could not be reached for comment.