During the long legislative session of 2009 that was defined by increased spending, in¬creased taxes, and a statewide smoking ban, the General Assembly managed to make several other significant changes to the General Statutes. One such revision – largely made unnoticed and with little media attention or fanfare – would drastically alter current laws on the books by putting drunk drivers back on the roads.
House Bill 1185, sponsored primarily by Rep. Ronnie Sutton (D-Robeson), would allow habitual impaired drivers to petition to restore their driver’s license after 10 years provided that they have maintained a clean criminal record and are no longer users of drugs or alcohol.
The state considers anyone who has four DWI convictions in fewer than 10 years a habitual impaired driver. At the time the bill was being considered, the law stipulated that anyone con¬victed of four DWIs would be forced to surrender their license for life, but now offenders could seek a permit from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The purpose of such legislation, according to Sutton was to give those convicted of DWI a second chance. “This is something to allow a person who has had real problems to straighten their lives out and hopefully find themselves on the straight and narrow,” Sut¬ton told the News & Observer in May 2009.
Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), one of the bill’s supporters, mentioned the practicality of giving those convicted of habitual DWI another shot. “Particularly in rural North Carolina, it’s difficult to get around with an automobile, so this is just a chance to give them a second chance.”
Craig Lloyd, MADD-NC State Executive Director, as expected opposed the bill. “We sent a letter to the Governor requesting that she veto the legislation,” Lloyd said referring to HB 1185. Saying that North Carolina ranked fifth in the country in 2008 for drunk driving fatalities, Lloyd supported alternative legislation – House Bill 1489 – that he claimed would deter first time offenders from driving while intoxicated again. In 2008, law enforcement made almost 74,000 DWI arrests. Of those, 35 to 40 percent of DWI arrests are repeat offenders.
Sponsored by Rep. Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) and former Rep. Ty Harrell (D-Wake), HB 1489 would re¬quire first time DWI offenders to have an ignition interlock system installed on every car that they may drive. An igni¬tion interlock system is a sophisticated sensor that a driver must blow into to test for alcohol on their breath.
The vehicle cannot be started if the driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC) is above a preset level.
“This legislation not only focuses on habitual offenders, but we would hope that it also would deter any first time offenders from driving while intoxicated again,” Lloyd said. “The interlock has been mandated for several years, but this legislation would require it for first time offenders.”
The House of Representatives ini¬tially took action on HB 1185 in April of 2009 and were promptly followed by the Senate. Gov. Bev Perdue signed the legislation into law last July. The new policy was implemented on December 1, 2009 and, due to a sunset provision, is set to expire on December 1, 2014.