JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed drunken-driving legislation Wednesday that seeks to steer offenders toward alcohol treatment programs and ensure that repeat offenders are punished.
Nixon made it a priority to overhaul the state's drunken-driving laws because of concerns that punishment for drunken driving varies widely among Missouri's counties. The Democratic governor said the legislation that takes effect Aug. 28 will make roads safer.
"This should mean that fewer families will have to answer a knock at the door in the middle of the night and learn that a loved one's life has been cut short by a drunk driver," he said.
Nixon was holding signing ceremonies for the bill in St. Louis and Jefferson City on Wednesday and in Sikeston and Carthage on Thursday. Lawmakers approved the changes without dissent in the final days of the session.
The push to overhaul Missouri's drunken-driving laws came after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that record-keeping problems have made it difficult to know the number of times motorists have been convicted of impaired driving and that many repeat offenders are not charged with felonies when that is an option. Also, courts in the St. Louis area frequently granted offenders plea bargains that kept the cases off criminal records.
In 2009, almost 35,000 people were arrested for drunken driving in Missouri. Through April this year, more than 9,000 have been arrested, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
Highway Patrol traffic accident statistics show that of the more than 155,000 accidents in 2008, nearly 5 percent involved a person drinking alcohol and more than one-quarter of all fatal crashes involved alcohol.
Under the legislation, prosecutions for people with at least two drunken-driving convictions will be handled in state trial courts instead of local municipal courts. Law officers and prosecutors also are to develop standards for reporting drunken-driving offenses for a state database. Reporting that information already is required, but the law would require local officers to certify they comply when applying for grants
The bill also promotes alcohol treatment programs for repeat drunken drivers and those whose blood-alcohol content is about double the legal limit of 0.08 percent. Trial courts would be allowed to set up special drunken-driving courts that combine supervision, drug testing, alcohol monitoring and treatment. Offenders would pay for the program.
In areas where the drunken-driving courts are implemented, offenders who do not complete it will have to spend at least 48 hours in jail if their blood-alcohol level is at least 0.15 percent, and five days in jail if it is at least 0.20 percent. Prior offenders would spend at least 10 days in jail and those with at least two previous offenses would serve at least 30 days.
But the special drunken-driving courts also would be allowed to give restricted driving privileges after 45 days. Currently, first-time drunken drivers lose their driver's licenses for up to 90 days and repeat offenders can lose theirs for up to 10 years.
Phaedra Olsen, the victim services manager in Missouri for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the changes are an improvement.
"It shows our Missouri citizens that we are moving in the right direction," she said.
Olsen — who uses a wheelchair because she was struck by a drunken driver in 1996 — said Missouri should require first-time drunken drivers to use ignition interlock devices that prevent engines from starting until drivers breathe into an alcohol detector to prove they are sober.