More than two dozen Virginia laws aimed at cracking down on drunken driving take effect today, making the state one of the nation's toughest on intoxicated drivers.
Most of the laws will dish out stricter punishments to two groups that experts say are responsible for most drunken driving accidents and fatalities: repeat offenders and extremely drunk drivers. But the new legislation also makes it more likely that first-time drunk drivers will go to jail.
Lawmakers and advocates say they hope the statutes -- which include longer mandatory jail sentences, as well as vehicle seizure and denial of bail for some repeat offenders -- will reduce traffic accidents and ensure that drunk drivers spend more time behind bars.
"The message of this is: If you drive drunk in Virginia, you will be caught, you will be convicted and you will be punished," said Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Charlottesville), who sponsored several of the laws.
The drunken driving measures are among the state's many new laws. Some of them toughen statutes on gang activity, expand consumers' rights to fight telemarketing and establish a fund for new domestic violence programs.
Other laws broaden criminal penalties, such as a "feticide" law that makes it a crime to kill a fetus in an attack on a mother.
Lawmakers say they were driven to draft the 25 drunken driving laws -- the most such legislation the General Assembly has passed in at least 10 years -- after seeing alcohol-related traffic deaths rise in recent years and concluding that laws were not deterring drunk drivers.
In 2002, 375 people died in drunken driving accidents in Virginia -- 18 more than were murdered that year in the state, and up from 302 in 1997. According to preliminary figures, 361 people died in such accidents last year.
Lawmakers say they also were prompted by recent drunken driving cases involving repeat offenders, including a May 2003 incident in which a drunk driver with several convictions caused an accident that killed a Norfolk teenager.
"Our laws, particularly dealing with the repeat offender, were simply not efficient," said Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach), who sponsored several new laws. "People were slipping through the cracks."
In its 2001 national report card, Mothers Against Drunk Driving gave Virginia's drunken driving laws a grade of D-plus. Virginia now will be one of 10 states that are harshest on drunk drivers, said MADD's national president, Wendy Hamilton.
Two laws stand out as especially tough, experts say. One, which lawmakers call a zero-tolerance law, makes it illegal for drivers with restricted licenses from drunken driving convictions to drive with any alcohol in their systems.
Another law sends "super drunks" -- defined as drivers with a blood alcohol content of 0.15, nearly twice the legal limit of 0.08 -- to jail for at least five days, even if they are first-time offenders. A 175-pound man reaches a level of 0.15 after drinking about eight beers in two hours.
The previous threshold for that sentence was a blood alcohol content of 0.20.
Maryland and the District do not have zero-tolerance laws or mandatory jail time for first-time offenders.
The laws also increase punishments for repeat offenders. Those convicted of drunken driving for the third time in five years, for example, must serve six months in jail, up from 30 days. Three-time offenders also may be required to forfeit their cars.
Other laws eliminate bail for those convicted of drunken driving for a fourth time in five years and require 20-day jail terms for some second offenders.
The lowered "super-drunk" limit and a new law requiring all drunken driving convictions to go on a driver's criminal record could affect people who consider themselves "social drinkers," prosecutors and defense attorneys say.
"The old era in which driving under the influence was considered a traffic violation or even sort of a social faux pas -- those days are gone," said Robert Bushnell, commonwealth's attorney for Henry County and president of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys.
To advertise the new laws, the state this weekend will launch a $600,000 radio campaign aimed at men ages 21 to 35, who are most likely to drive drunk, says Kurt Gregory Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program.
The radio spots will publicize the start of an annual campaign to catch more drunk drivers. Under the program, called Checkpoint Strikeforce, law enforcement officers will set up sobriety checkpoints on Virginia roadways once a week from July through January.
The new laws look tough, but they will be effective only if drivers know about them and if courts enforce punishments, said Jeffrey Levy, public policy liaison for the Virginia chapter of MADD.
"This is not a freebie," he said. "The real measurement here is, at the end of the year, how many deaths we've suffered, how many crashes and how many arrests."
Critics of the laws say cash-strapped Virginia does not have the money to prosecute and send more drunk drivers to jails, many of which are over capacity.
Lawmakers are aware that the laws alone will not eradicate drunken driving and that the state might need to give more money to courts and law enforcement agencies to enforce the laws, Bell said. For the time being, he said, lawmakers are confident that the new statutes will help get more drunk drivers off Virginia roads.
"What we can do in the legislature is give the prosecutors and give the cops the tools they need to do their job," he said. "And at that point, you've accomplished something."