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Whether DUI reform in ND went far enough a 'leap of faith'

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news Dickinson, 58602
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

FARGO -- After losing his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter in a crash caused by a drunk driver last summer, Tom Deutscher prays that North Dakota's tougher DUI law works.

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Deutscher, who became an outspoken advocate for strengthening drunken driving laws in the wake of the crash, is optimistic about parts of the new law, such as the mandatory participation in the 24/7 sobriety program for repeat offenders. He has mixed emotions about other tools considered but rejected by the Legislature, including ignition interlock devices and mandatory jail time for all first-time offenders.

Only time and statistics will tell if lawmakers made the right call, he said.

"I think you have to study it to see whether your decisions were sound," he said Friday. "Some of this was a leap of faith based on other states."

With the new law set to take effect Aug. 1, a comparison of its penalties with those of neighboring states shows North Dakota's law weaker in some aspects and tougher in others.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which in 2006 began campaigning for ignition interlock laws in every state for all offenders, applauded North Dakota's new DUI law but indicated it will continue to push for mandatory interlock devices in the state.

Ignition interlock devices are put in vehicles to prevent offenders from driving if their blood-alcohol concentration is above a certain level.

Frank Harris, MADD's state legislative affairs manager, noted that House Bill 1302 signed by Gov. Jack Dalrymple last month requires a legislative management study that must include a review of the use of interlock devices.

"Currently, 17 states require the use of interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers, and MADD hopes in 2015 North Dakota will join these states," he said in an email.

To make its case, MADD refers to researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who conducted a systematic review of 15 scientific studies on interlock devices. Their findings, published in the March 2011 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, showed that after the devices were installed, re-arrest rates for alcohol-impaired driving fell by 67 percent compared with drivers with suspended licenses.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said before the session began that interlock devices are a "fine tool" already available to police and the courts, but that he often thinks they "keep the car from drinking, and what we really need to do is keep the offender from drinking."

Rep. Ed Gruchalla, D-Fargo, a retired North Dakota Highway Patrol sergeant who proposed a DUI bill with stiffer penalties than the GOP-sponsored bill that passed, said if people are busted for drinking and driving, the punishment should address both activities.

"I'm sold on interlocks," he said. "They're the wave of the future. We've got to get on board."

Gruchalla scoffed at concerns raised by some lawmakers that mandatory interlocks would create an undue burden on rural residents who drive multiple vehicles and farm machinery.

"If you want to drive two vehicles, you've got to put an interlock in each vehicle," he said. "It's not brain surgery. That was just a cop-out."

Gruchalla said increasing the fine for first-time offenders from $250 to $500 won't deter drunken driving, especially among the more affluent. He supports mandatory jail time for first offenders, calling it "the equalizer."

"As far as being a deterrent for DUI, I think we gained very little," he said.

A list of first-offense drunken driving penalties compiled by the Detroit Free Press in 2011 found seven states with mandatory jail time for first offenders and 10 states that allowed community service to be substituted for mandatory jail time. Washington state mandated one day in jail or 15 days at home on electronic tether.

North Dakota's new law adds an aggravated DUI category with harsher penalties for first-time offenders with a BAC of 0.16 percent or higher. The offense carries a mandatory two days in jail or 20 hours of community service and a minimum fine of $750.

Those penalties could apply in many cases. In 2011, the most recent year for which statistics were available, the average BAC among those who were administered blood or breath tests in North Dakota was 0.174 percent for blood tests and 0.153 percent for breath tests, according to the attorney general's office.

Deutscher, whose son Aaron Deutscher of West Fargo, his pregnant wife, Allison, and their 18-month-old daughter, Brielle, died last July 6 when their vehicle was struck by a wrong-way driver on Interstate 94 near Crystal Springs, called the new law a "mature step forward."

"We'll have to look at it in the next two years and see if we can rely on statistics, I believe, to really tell us if we're having a deterrent effect, and maybe revisit the issue and see if there are shortcomings or we need to do something a little stronger," he said.

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