The Washington Post

D.C. toughens drunk driving law, restores breath test

A new anti-drunk-driving law that takes effect in the District on Wednesday not only re-establishes the suspended breath-test program but also imposes broader and tougher penalties for impaired driving.

(Toby Talbot/AP)

The Comprehensive Impaired Driving Act of 2012, emergency legislation passed by the D.C. Council and signed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray earlier in July, sets tougher penalties for first-time drunk drivers and lengthens mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders and drivers who show high concentrations of alcohol in their blood when tested.

A section of the law focuses for the first time standards for drivers of commercial vehicles, including limousines, taxis, buses, and trucks.

The new law’s provisions drew praise from Kurt Gregory Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, the group well know for coordinating SoberRide, which provides free cab rides home on some holidays for people who might otherwise drive while impaired.

“With more than a quarter of the District’s traffic deaths being caused by drunk drivers, these are necessary if not lifesaving new laws,” Erickson said in a statement supporting the act.

Another part of the legislation establishes new oversight for the D.C. police department’s breath-testing programs and a certification program for officers using the equipment.

This will allow the police to resume the breath testing the department suspended last year after a consultant found testing equipment had inflated blood alcohol levels, resulting in nearly 400 convictions based on inaccurate results. Police stopped using the tests last year and have been relying on field sobriety tests and urinalysis in making arrests.

New breath-test equipment has been purchased and will go into use now that the act has established the monitoring procedures and given the lead oversight role to the Department of Forensic Sciences, which the council created last year.

Here are the key details on the changes in standards effective Wednesday.

Maximum jail times and fines increase. A first-time offender could be jailed up to 180 days and fined up to $1,000. The old maximum was 90 days in jail and a $300 fine.

The mandatory minimum for repeat offenders or for first-time offenders with a blood alcohol concentration of .20 percent or higher doubles to 10 days in jail.

A driver with a blood alcohol concentration of .30 percent or higher faces at least 20 days in jail.

The blood alcohol limit for commercial vehicle operators will be .04 percent, and they will be subject to a five-day mandatory minimum jail term in addition to any other penalty they receive.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.


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