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Other Than Segways, States Increasing Penalties For Driving Drunk

By Aaron Crowe

Segway users who drink and drive when using the “personal transporters” recently got a break when a Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the Segway isn’t a motor vehicle and drunken driving laws don’t apply to it.

Police in Medina, Minn., arrested a man for driving with an alcohol concentration of .08% or more, along with a DWI charge, or driving while intoxicated. He appealed and won, partly based on an earlier case where a wheelchair was ruled to be a pedestrian.

That’s one of the few times when DWI laws were lessened. Most states — whether through legislation or court rulings — aim to increase penalties for drunken driving.

Every state has a minimum .08% blood alcohol content level required before someone can be declared legally drunk, so states start there and increase penalties. Here are some recent DWI and DUI (for driving under the influence) laws that are being revised, often the result of someone being killed by a drunk driver:

North Carolina: Legislators are looking to close a loophole that treats some repeat drunken driver like first-time offenders. The bill is tied to a case where a man killed a couple and their granddaughter in the 1980s, and has since had numerous DWI charges and been in and out of prison, but still isn’t considered a habitual DWI offender in the state.

North Carolina requires someone with four DWIs within 10 years to be listed as a habitual offender, leading to more prison time. The defendant in this case wasn’t treated as a habitual offender because there was a 10-year window between convictions while he was in prison. The bill would close that window.

Arkansas: A House bill makes it easier to prosecute a DWI offender who injures someone else in a DWI wreck. It would allow the driver to be charged with second degree battery, which carries a stiffer penalty.

New Hampshire: A state DWI law that took effect Jan. 1 expands drunken driving to the use of “any other chemical substance, natural or synthetic.” The include cold medicines, sleep aides, prescription medications and sniffing paint and glue.

New Mexico: A DWI bill would require the driver’s license to be permanently taken away from a drunken driver convicted of DWI five times. An appeal for an ignition interlock wouldn’t be allowed if it becomes a law.

The bill’s sponsor told a TV station that one person was still driving in New Mexico after 13 DWI convictions. Another driver with eight convictions and 19 DWI arrests was allowed to drive with an interlock device.

Mississippi: Auditors found that the state misused millions of federal highway grant dollars designated for resolving alcohol-related vehicle crashes. More than $7 million was improperly channeled for use in general enforcement, such as curbing speeding or seat-belt violations, and not to stop drunken driving.

To fix the problem, the state Office of Highway Safety added an auditor, among other internal controls. Drivers in Mississippi, which is one of 11 states without a law barring open containers in vehicles, may expect to see police looking more for drunken drivers than speeders. The state must only prove impairment, not that it was because of a controlled substance.

Mississippi legislators are studying a bill that would require an ignition lock by people convicted of DUI. The House there recently passed the bill, which next goes to the state Senate.

Wisconsin: Six bills are being proposed to harshen the state’s drunken driving laws. They include requiring first-time offenders to go to court, and a third-time offense being a felony requiring the defendant’s vehicle be seized. Mandatory jailtime would also be imposed, from six months to three years in jail if someone is injured, and 10 years if someone is killed.

Michigan: State legislators are considering extending a law to keep the blood alcohol level at .08%. The current law setting that limit expires in October, and if legislation isn’t passed, the BAC would go back up to .10%. Alcohol related driving fatalities have gone down 25% since the .08% BAC was enacted in 2003, and the state could lose more than $50 million in federal funding if it reverts to the higher level.

Aaron Crowe is a journalist who covers auto insurance for