Party planners and attendees in Pennsylvania may want to be thinking more than ever now about keeping tabs on who’s driving at the end of the night, and, most importantly, whether they’re OK to do so.

That’s sound advice always.

But even more so this week, as the 2018 Christmas season rings in a set of stricter penalties for repeat drunk driving offenders.

The new law took effect Dec. 23. Here are the main changes:

  • Driving while under the influence charge will be graded as a felony for all motorists who have been arrested for the fourth time; as well as those who have been arrested for the third time within a 10-year period and registered a blood-alcohol content of .16 or higher, or twice the legal limit.

To this point, repeat DUI offenses in Pennsylvania has simply piled up as misdemeanors on an individual’s record. A felony conviction carries the prospect of longer prison times, higher fines, and may affect certain rights and privileges like being able to run for public office or taking a job in certain professions.

  • Creating a new minimum mandatory prison sentence of five years for any repeat DUI offender found to have caused a DUI-related homicide by vehicle; or seven years for a someone with two or more DUIs who has caused a DUI-related fatality.

Homicide by vehicle while DUI has until now carried a three-year minimum prison term, regardless of the offender’s DUI history.

  • Finally, the bill also creates a stepladder of escalating fines and other penalties for motorists who are caught driving drunk on a driver’s license that is been suspended for a prior DUI.

According to advocates for the changes, there are an estimated 250,000 repeat DUI offenders in Pennsylvania (persons with two or more convictions for drunken driving), and about 140,000 persons whose licenses are currently suspended because of a DUI.

It’s those people, noted Chris Demko of Pennsylvania Parents Against Impaired Driving, who will feel the full force of the changes if they continue to drink and drive.

Demko said he believes the changes provide a stronger sense of escalating penalties for repeat DUI offenses.

“What we think will happen is that people are going to have another reason not to drive impaired against after the first time,” said Demko, whose own 18-year-old daughter was killed by a repeat DUI offender in 2014.

“At a bare minimum, it’s going to take some of the worst offenders off the road for a longer period of time when they get caught, so they can’t go out and kill anybody.”

Statistics have borne out a correlation between repeat DUI offenders and a higher risk of serious accidents. According to data from the Pennsylvania parents’ group, repeat offenders are responsible for approximately 40% of all DUI-related fatalities.

Similarly, a 2014 analysis of fatal crashes by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed drivers with a BAC level of .15 or higher were seven times more likely to have had a prior conviction for driving while impaired than non-drinking drivers.

Supporters of the tougher penalties have also pointed out many of these same offenders now have an opportunity to continue driving through the suspension if they agree to use an ignition interlock device, which is designed to safeguard against a drunk person getting behind the wheel.

In many ways, SB 961 is designed as the stick to that carrot, passed two years ago.

The stricter punishments passed easily in both chambers on the last voting session of the 2017-18 term, cruising through the House on a 184-1 vote, and then passing in the Senate by 45-4.

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