Jon Ridge, coordinator of Washington County DUI Court, wishes that when people discuss recent changes to Pennsylvania’s drunken driving law, they use the term “first conviction” rather than “first offense.”
In the typical DUI scenario, in which a driver with no prior record is halted by a police officer without being involved in a crash, the driver, in court, may be offered Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, known as ARD, if he or she submits to a blood or breath test and have a blood-alcohol level that’s on the low side of the intoxication spectrum.
ARD is a one-time-only offer, but it does not result in a conviction, so any DUI charge filed afterward is considered a potential first conviction.
“Believe me, this law is not easy to understand,” Ridge said.
According to a summation prepared by the American Automobile Association, changes in the law require first-time offenders with a blood-alcohol content higher than 0.10 percent to install an ignition interlock device in their vehicles. Previously, the device was required only for second and subsequent offenses. The new law allows first-time offenders to drive immediately with the interlock device installed, rather than wait until after serving a driver’s license suspension, currently between 30 days and one year, based upon the offender’s BAC percentage.
The new law also applies to drivers who refuse to submit to chemical testing. Previously, a driver who refused the test would receive between a one-year and 18-month suspension. With the new law, the first-time offender who refuses to take the test will still face a license suspension, but will be eligible for a device after serving six months of that suspension, regardless of the length of the total suspension.
Lest a miscreant have a substitute activate the ignition interlock device so he or she can drive while inebriated, the device conducts what is known as a “rolling re-test” while the driver is actually behind the wheel.
“It’s a pretty nifty piece of equipment,” Ridge said, and one for which defendants foot the bill.
In 2016, 299 DUI offenders in Washington County were convicted of the crime either by pleading guilty or being found guilty by a jury or in a bench trial before a judge.
“All were subject to some form of ignition interlock,” Ridge said.
As of Tuesday, the Washington County Adult Probation Office was supervising 4,157 people. “Over 1,000 of those are going to be DUIs,” said Ridge, who also is an instructor in a mandatory highway safety school for those who must attend because of the terms of ARD or a court-imposed sentence.
The state classifies Washington as a county of the fourth class, but as the population of Washington County increases, so do its drunken-driving statistics.
“We’re beating a couple of third-class counties,” Ridge said, noting that in 2016, Washington County had 999 DUI arrests. Beaver County, Washington’s neighbor to the north, had about 600 DUIs last year.
In Greene County, there are about 150 to 200 DUI cases each year, according to Craig Wise, the county’s adult probation director. He said his office supervises about 650 adults, with about 200 of those for DUI cases.
He said the new law “expands the pool of people who are eligible,” which he thinks will be a positive. It also allows drivers to designate a single car for the interlock rather than having the system being installed on all cars registered in a person’s name.
“We know it’s effective,” Wise said. “It’s a tool to keep people sober, and for some people, allow them to drive who didn’t have a license.”
Drivers must get an interlock license, where as before they were permitted to hold an occupational limited license that allowed them to driver to school, work or treatment. One drawback, Wise said, is that people going through ARD must have all court costs and fines paid before being eligible.
“Well, that’s not going to help a lot of people, but it will help some people,” Wise said.
The average BAC of those arrested in Pennsylvania for drunken driving is 0.17 percent, which is more than double the legal limit of 0.08 percent.
Mothers Against Drunk Drivers is among the organizations that voiced support for the new DUI law, which had as its prime sponsor state Rep. John C. Rafferty Jr., R-Montgomery County. Others pressing for the new law included AAA, Parents Against Impaired Driving and PennDOT.
Regional editor Mike Jones contributed to this report.