New Bill Brings Harsher Penalties for Impaired and Distracted Driving

As the legislative session draws to a close, politicians are making last-minute efforts to pass their bills into law. One bill introduced by Rep. Kathleen Rice would create a new criminal law for intoxicated drivers who get behind the wheel with a child in their vehicle. The Prevent Impaired Driving Child Endangerment Act would nationalize ‘Leandra’s Law’ which made driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol a felony crime punishable by four years in prison. Drivers convicted under Leandra’s Law must also attend substance abuse treatment and install an ignition interlock system in their vehicle. If passed into law, states would be required to enact Leandra’s Law or lose federal highway funding beginning in 2021. New York already passed a version of Leandra’s Law.

Rep. Rice also introduced a second piece of legislation aimed at automobile safety. Introduced last month by the New York Democrat, The End Drunk Driving Act would require automobile manufacturers to introduce technology that could detect if a driver is impaired or under the influence. Newsday said that two technologies have emerged that could detect an impaired driver and disable their ability to start a vehicle. One system uses an infrared fingerprint scanner to measure a driver’s blood alcohol content before allowing the vehicle to start. The other system passively measures the breath of the person in the driver’s seat. Traffic safety advocates say the fingerprint method is more precise but the air monitoring system is less intrusive and could monitor the driver’s impairment level during the drive. Unfortunately, the technology is currently inaccurate and prone to misjudgments. Perhaps more problematic, neither option can determine whether the driver is impaired from any other substance. With rates of opioid and marijuana use rising across the country, testing exclusively for alcohol-impaired drivers seems shortsighted.

Regardless, alcohol remains America’s drug of choice and a University of Michigan study concluded that an alcohol monitoring system would reduce drunk driving deaths by 85 percent in just 15 years. In addition to the steep drop in deaths, injuries caused by alcohol-impaired drivers would drop by 1.25 million. The new technologies would also save Americans an estimated $343 billion within 15 years. Using this information, Rep. Rice says the bill will pay for itself in less than three years.

Interviewed by Newsday, Alisa McMorris describes losing her son to a drunk driver as “the worst day of my life.” McMorris says the privacy and financial concerns of Rep. Rice’s bill seem so minor when compared to the ability of the new technology to save lives. “But you tell me if people didn’t think it was worth paying a little extra for a car to have a seat belts or an air bag in it,” the grieving mother told the online newspaper. Jason Levin, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, acknowledged the “potential game changing” technology. Levin’s concerns about the new technology; however, are more fundamental. “The question is will it work as designed and advertised.”

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