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Sobering Legislation

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If Gov. Mike Foster can tolerate Jim Champagne's candor during the eight months left in the governor's term, his point man on highway safety might help persuade the Legislature to pass some life-saving legislation. We hope so.

Foster, a motorcycle enthusiast, gets rankled every time Champagne, executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission (and a retired State Police commander) reminds the public how foolish it was for Foster to push for repeal of the motorcycle law helmet law for adults in 1999. Foster has threatened Champagne's job and vows to veto any bill to repeal his cherished helmet law.

Yet, Champagne soldiers on.

In New Orleans last month, during a roaring wave of homicides, Champagne reminded us that traffic accidents are the leading killer statewide -- and motorists better buckle up their seat belts or face an aggressively enforced $25 fine. "In the first three months of this year, we have had 209 fatalities; 71 percent of the victims were not wearing seat belts," Champagne said. "It's an unacceptable situation. Law enforcement is tired of it."

Helmut Schneider, a statistician at Louisiana State University who conducted a 2001 study for Champagne's highway commission, says that of the roughly 160,000 traffic accidents that year, 50,000 resulted in fatalities or injuries. In those accidents, 947 people were killed and a total of 81,200 people suffered injuries.

More than 47 percent of all fatal crashes in 2001 -- both statewide and in Orleans Parish -- involved alcohol. In Jefferson and East Baton Rouge parishes, alcohol was involved in 40 percent of 2001's traffic fatalities. Meanwhile, in the parishes of St. Tammany and Lafayette, the figures were 56 percent and 58 percent, respectively. Clearly, this is a statewide problem.

Our party culture must change. For many, social drinking mixes well with seafood, Jazz Fest and New Orleans nightlife. But drinking never mixes well with driving. It's time for the public to demand sober legislation on traffic safety. Let's start with Foster's motorcycle helmet law:

· Motorcycle fatalities are up 38 percent since 1999 (the year the governor's law passed), according to a list of Louisiana "crash facts" provided by Champagne's office. Several pending bills would reinstate the helmet law for all operators and passengers of motorcycles. We support both House Bill 716 by Rep. Melinda Schwegmann, D-New Orleans, and Senate Bill 136 by Joel Chaisson II, D-Destrehan, but both bills should be amended so as not to delete requirements for minimum health insurance coverage.

· Louisiana's open container law prohibits drivers from drinking while driving, but it allows passengers to guzzle all they want. Drivers often escape the $50 fine by handing their drinks to a passenger as soon as their cars are pulled over. Champagne rightfully calls the present law "absolutely asinine." The feds are threatening to shift $14 million in much-needed highway construction funds to road safety programs unless Louisiana "closes the lid" on all containers. We support Chaisson's SB 749, which should seal the loophole.

· Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) favors increasing incarceration time (while retaining substance abuse treatment) for felony DWI offenders. Jail time for felony DWI was reduced by the Legislature in 2001 in an effort to reduce the staggering costs of mandatory minimum prison sentences. But now the feds are threatening to shift another $14 million from state highway reconstruction if Louisiana does not impose tougher sentences for third and fourth DWI convictions.

SB 405 by Chaisson and state Rep. Reggie Dupre, D-Montegut, increases the mandated minimum prison time for a third DWI conviction from 30 days to at least 90 days without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence. For a fourth or subsequent offense, a DWI convict faces up to a 30-year sentence. Six months to a year of that sentence must be incarceration time. Sentence reduction through "good time" would be eliminated for both offenses. Outpatient treatment would be required for any suspension of sentence. Critics such as Glynn J. Delatte Jr., a former State Police trooper and spokesperson for the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says current laws authored two years ago by Rep. Kenneth Odinet should be given a chance to work. We disagree. Tougher sentences are needed now.

· A state law already requires people involved in a traffic accident in which a fatality or serious injury occurs to take a test for alcohol abuse. But SB 769 by Chaisson makes it a crime for DWI arrestees to refuse a blood, urine or breath test to determine blood-alcohol levels on the third occasion. Eight states have already criminalized the refusal to take a blood alcohol test. In addition, 36 states give a harsher penalty to drivers who refuse to take the blood alcohol test than to drivers who take the test and fail. SB 769 deserves support.

· Meanwhile, we oppose MADD-backed legislation banning anyone under 21 from bars or lounges. After they've served in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who could deny a 19-year-old member of the military a chance to go where his or her older buddies can enjoy a cold beer? Not us. And not the Louisiana Restaurant Association, which also opposes the proposal.

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