Analysis: Keeping children safe from drunk drivers

By Jack Elliot Jr./The Associated Press

Drunken driving laws in Mississippi, for the most part, have focused on the person behind the wheel. A Meridian lawmaker hopes the Legislature will take notice of children who may be in the same vehicle.

Rep. Greg Snowden has pushed for a DUI child endangerment bill for two years. He won approval of the proposal in the House, attaching to a bill that would allow a person on a second offense to be given house arrest or ordered into inpatient treatment at an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center.

“It is something that law enforcement people have been asking me about for years,” said Snowden, a Republican who has been in the House since 2000.

Similar bills died during the 2010 session.

Thirty-eight states have some sort of DUI child endangerment law. Mississippi is among 14 states and the District of Columbia that do not.

Supporters of such laws argue that child endangerment, as it pertains to drunk driving, falls into the legal definition of child abuse because a parent or caregiver who knowingly puts a child in the car after drinking with the intention to drive is making a choice, one that puts the child in physical damage.

The penalties vary from state to state.

The most recent figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show there were 700 traffic fatalities in Mississippi in 2009; 97 of those killed were under the age of 20.

Of the total deaths, 234 people had a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent — the legal limit in Mississippi — or higher; with 169 being drivers.

Laura Dean-Mooney, the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, says drunk driving laws among states such as Mississippi should include child endangerment provisions.

“Every child deserves a designated sober driver,” Dean-Mooney said. “Drunk driving with children in the vehicle is a form of child abuse, and as such, should be considered a felony.”

MADD said nationwide in 2009, of the 1,314 children ages 14 and younger who were killed in traffic accidents, 181 were killed in drunken driving related crashes. Half of those deaths were children who were passengers in a vehicle with a driver who had a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher.

Snowden’s version makes driving drunk with a child in the car a felony on the third offense, when there is no serious injury to the child.

“That would mirror the regular DUI law. There are stiff fines and serious jail time — up to one year — even on the first two misdemeanor offenses,” Snowden said. “However, if the child is seriously injured or killed, it is a felony even on the first offense, and fines could range up to $10,000 and a violator could get 25 years in prison.

“That is a pretty strong deterrent, I’d argue, and certainly better than the ‘nothing’ Mississippi has now,” Snowden said. “It makes it tougher on drunk drivers. And at least if you’re not going to careful for yourself or those on the road with you, for goodness sakes don’t put a child in the car with you.”

Dean-Mooney said MADD would also like to see more states, including Mississippi, require all convicted drunk drivers to use an ignition interlock devices.

The breath-test machines are installed in vehicles used by people convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol. If a driver’s blood-alcohol content is above the 0.08 percent legal limit, the device prevents the vehicle from starting.

Under current Mississippi law, a judge can order a person convicted of a second or subsequent DUI to install an ignition interlock device. There is no bill pending in the 2011 session to expand the law.

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