Harder line on DUIs is good step

Beginning in August, as the result of a law passed last year, Pennsylvania will begin requiring first-time drunken drivers to get ignition interlock systems installed on their vehicles.

What that means is that, before the person’s car will start, the driver will, in effect, be required to pass a sobriety test.

That law is a significant step toward attacking the DUI problem.

However, people who understand the importance of sobriety when operating a motor vehicle should welcome the more aggressive assault on that problem being proposed by state Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster County.

Martin has introduced a bill that would create a mandatory “world of hurt” for any individual convicted of more than two DUIs in a 10-year period.

There would be two aspects to that “world.”

Martin said more than two DUI convictions within 10 years would mean at least two years of jail time; a habitual drunk driver who causes the death of another person could be charged with a first-degree felony mandating decades behind bars.

Acknowledging that some measures, such as interlock, have been — and are — being implemented, Martin said, “It is my hope that we can take another step toward making our communities safer by keeping some of the most dangerous offenders off the road for a very long time.”

Unfortunately, there still are people driving with multiple DUI convictions. If Martin’s bill is passed, they’d be wise not to risk another arrest.

In one sense, it’s ironic that Martin’s legislative proposal comes at a time when the state Department of Transportation has reported a record-low number of traffic fatalities for 2016. But Malcolm Friend, program director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Pennsylvania, pointed out that the fatal numbers — there were 263 reported DUI-related deaths recorded last year compared with 306 in 2015 — tell only part of the story.

Friend told the Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. news service that, while the number of people killed by drunken drivers dropped, the number of people injured seriously by them increased.

From the national perspective, Pennsylvania’s DUI laws are regarded as among the weakest in the United States. The personal finance website WalletHub, which has branched into producing research reports and surveys, released a ranking last August showing that only two states — North Dakota and South Dakota — have weaker DUI laws than the Keystone State.

Why Pennsylvania has been so reluctant for so long to truly crack down on drunken driving is puzzling.

Even when the federal government mandated that states lower the blood-alcohol-content threshold for a DUI conviction to .08 from .10, it took this state’s lawmakers until virtually the last minute to meet the deadline that Washington imposed for compliance or risk losing some funds.

In the press release announcing his proposed legislation, Martin said, “We need to make sure repeat offenders face a punishment that matches the dangerous nature of the crime.”

The Pennsylvania Senate and House are scheduled to reconvene on May 22. Despite the extensive work that remains regarding preparation of a 2017-18 state budget, lawmakers should put Martin’s proposal high up on the Legislature’s agenda.

In the meantime, the measure deserves strong backing from police, other organizations and the public in general. A mandatory “world of hurt” for drunken drivers is the right kind of deterrence — the right kind of medicine — for this serious problem.