Tough: Virginia's new DUI laws


Drunk driving got a little bit more dangerous July 1– for the drunks doing the driving.

Just before July 4– a holiday more deadly than New Year's Eve, according to safety experts– Virginia enacted 25 new laws in an effort to show no mercy to drinkers who get behind the wheel.

And Delegate Rob Bell, who carried five of those bills, has emerged as the poster boy in the campaign to take back the streets.

"If you drink and drive in Virginia, we will catch you, and we will convict you," he warns. "The goal is not to lock people up. The goal is to get them off the road."

The laws focuses on repeat offenders by stiffening penalties, and even confiscating the vehicle of a DUI driver with three or more offenses in the past 10 years who is the sole owner of the car.

But even first offenders can do time. The single most important bill, thinks Bell, is the "super drunk" law, which makes jail time mandatory– even for first-time offenders– if they have a blood alcohol content, or BAC, of .15, down from .20. Not only is the drinker looking at a minimum of five days in jail, but once he's out, his car will be outfitted with an ignition interlock that keeps the car from starting until after a breath test.

So how many drinks does it take to make someone a super drunk? Six drinks in an hour on an empty stomach for a 180-pound man, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. "This is not social drinking," says NTSB's Danielle Roeber.

"At .15 you find 'em pretty lit," agrees Bell. And in 2001, 8,200 of those arrested for DUIs in Virginia had blood alcohol levels between .15 and .20.

Other additions to the law books:

- Refusing to take a breath or blood test when under arrest for a second DUI is now a misdemeanor, in addition to other penalties. You still automatically lose your license for a year with no option for restricted license the first time you refuse to blow.

- Offenders using a restricted license with even a hint of alcohol on their breaths– .02– lose their licenses for a year.

- Repeat offenders with convictions in the past five years can forget about bail.

- A DUI goes on your criminal record, instead of just on your driving record.

- And it'll cost more all around, including possible restitution for emergency services and contributions to a Trauma Center Fund.

Bell insists he has no traumatic run-in with a drunk driver in his past– except when he worked as a prosecutor in Orange County. "Early in my tenure, I had two cases that involved drunk driving fatalities," he explains. "It brings it home when you're talking to the person affected, much more than dry statistics do."

At the same time, "I'm not saying don't drink," he insists. "Boyfriends will always beat up girlfriends. People will always drink. But this is preventable. Get as drunk as you want. Just don't drive."

Some work still needs to be done to get the word out about the harsher penalties. Last year between July 1 and 4, Albemarle had no DUI arrests. This year for the same period, it had four.

Police, rescue workers, MADD, AAA, and NTSB join Delegate Rob Bell to celebrate Virginia's new drunk driving laws– "the most rewarding day I've had as a member of the General Assembly," says Bell.