by Rep. Kate Webb
Vermont is a driving state. Our development patterns and limited public transportation require most of us to have access to a vehicle to get to work, buy groceries and participate in community life. Loss of a license can become a huge economic barrier; yet dangerous drivers are costly to our communities in life-altering ways.
Two bills related to drivers who make mistakes passed the House last week. One is designed to improve highway safety by bringing swift and sure driving consequences to help keep those who want to drink and drive off our roads. The other strikes a balance between legitimate license suspensions and archaic laws that stand as economic barriers and no longer serve public safety.
Driving under the influence, commonly known as DUI, is implicated in numerous accidents, often involving innocent drivers and vulnerable road users. Current law addresses these drivers through license suspension and in some cases the use of a breath alcohol ignition interlock device or BAIID. These devices are smarter than you think. An installed camera takes a picture of the person using the device and random checks while the car is moving help to swiftly identify cheaters. Any blood alcohol level above the legal limit warns the driver and allows a short window to pull over and turn off the ignition before lights flash and the horn honks. All incidents are reported back to the Dept. of Motor Vehicles.
Our current DUI license suspension and BAIID installations laws, however, are still leaving many impaired drivers on the road. First time offenders, given the option of a 90-day suspension or 30 days plus 6 months with a BAIID, often simply choose suspension – and drive anyway, sometimes impaired. The House-passed bill would provide a different choice: 6-month suspension or start driving right away with a restricted license using an ignition interlock device. Second-time offenders would be required to use the device for 18 months. A third offense, in addition to prison and fines, would see a driver’s license suspension for life, with some possibility of restoration of a restricted license for those who can demonstrate a long period of abstinence. Criminal penalties in all cases would still stand.
The second bill proposes changes to Vermont’s driver’s license suspension process, providing a different path to distinguish those who lost a license for legitimate traffic safety violations from those who simply failed to pay a fine. Sixty percent of Vermont driver’s licenses are suspended for failure to pay traffic fines. Although one would think this would encourage timely payment, this does not appear to be the case. Too often, individuals who fail to pay are unable to pay. In addition, they are now hampered from getting to and from work, and some simply continue to drive thereby risking more debt burden. This can become a cycle of poverty and law breaking for which no one wins.
The Judiciary Committee found that the point system was a better indicator as to when a license should be suspended and stiffens penalties for those violators. Non-traffic violations are addressed in three parts: 1) those existing before 1990; 2) restoration between 1990-2015 and 3) sets a more rational plan going forward.
The 1990 suspensions for failure to pay were found to be impossible to prosecute in part because evidence of those suspensions was burned or water-damaged. The Attorney General will seek dismissal for those suspensions that did not have points.
The second group, may apply for restoration and a more reasonable payment plan during a three-month period from September 1 to November 30,2016. Going forward, fines with points may be subject to suspension, while those without may apply for a payment plan.
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