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Zero Tolerance for Teen Drivers

By DAVID ROYSE
State Capital Bureau

January 26, 1995

JEFFERSON CITY _ ``Get tough on crime'' rhetoric is as commonplace as crime itself these days. But mostly absent from the flurry of promises has been talk of one of the deadliest crimes _ drunken driving.

Never-the-less, the issue is getting some legislative attention in the form of bills that would suspend the driver's license of any minor caught driving with even a trace of alcohol in their system.

The so-called zero-tolerance legislation would make it a crime for minors to be caught driving with a blood alcohol content over .02 percent. The legal blood alcohol limit for adult drivers would remain at .10 percent.

One highway safety official, in testimony before the Senate's crime committee, compared the death toll for teens from drunken driving to the recent Japanese earthquake that made headlines throughout the world.

In Japan, more than 4,000 died in the earthquake, while in January of last year, more than 7,000 14 to 20-year olds were killed in drunken driving accidents on the nation's roads, said Dan Needham, the Director of the Missouri Highway Safety Division.

``You can make a difference,'' Needham told the lawmakers. ``You may save the life of someone you love...Those 7,000 young people had names and faces. Can you afford not to pass this legislation?''

A zero-tolerance bill could reduce the number of drunken driving fatalities among minors in Missouri by 25 percent, according James Blaine, a Springfield physician who chairs the Governor's DWI task force.

Sen. Joe Moseley, D-Columbia is the sponsor of one of the zero-tolerance bills. He said losing a license is a serious deterrent for teens.

``My experience is that for a person of that age, the most valuable possession is the driver's license,'' said Moseley.

In 1994, there were 42 fatal accidents in Missouri involving drinking drivers 20-years-old or younger reported to state traffic officials.

Another drunken driving bill before the committee would give judges the option of requiring DWI offenders on probation to have their cars fitted with devices that would prevent an intoxicated from starting the car.

Twenty other states have passed laws that allow or require use of these auto-ignition interlock devices. Some states, including Kansas, Illinois and Iowa, require the devices for certain classes of offenders or as a condition for re-instatement of their licenses.

According to Richard Freund, who represents one of five companies that manufactures the devices, there are more than 15,000 DWI offenders nationwide with the devices installed on their vehicles.

Freund also said the average re-arrest rate over one year for people with interlock devices is less than 2 percent, while the average for DWI offenders not on the program is about 20 percent.

``Basically, it controls drinking and driving behavior...When they get near their vehicle, the vehicle's going to make sure they don't drive'' if the driver is drunk, Freund said.

Eighty percent of DWI offenders under license suspension drive illegally, according to Freund, and more than half of those who have their licenses revoked for more than 90 days never re-apply for a license, although many continue to drive.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving supports the use of the interlock equipment for those whose licenses have been revoked, as well as the zero-tolerance bills.