Legal Review: Virginians Fearful for the Future of Road Safety with Minimum DUI Penalties

In the United States, drunk driving has been an ongoing issue costing billions annually, and more importantly, taking the lives of roughly 10,000 people every year.

Drunk driving laws have made it illegal at a national level to drive with a blood alcohol content (BAC) at or above 0.08 percent. For drivers under the legal age, “zero tolerance” laws have been implemented, which makes driving with any detectable level of alcohol illegal and punishable by law. Many states such as Virginia have taken further steps to discourage drunk driving by creating more intense penalties.

Virginia Drunk Driving Statistics

As reported by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, one in six Virginia motorists may be involved in an alcohol-related car accident throughout their life. The Virginia DMV also reported that 34 percent of all traffic fatalities were related to driving under the influence of alcohol. These statistics reflect 819 total traffic fatalities in 2018, 278 of which died in alcohol-related car incidents.

In 2018, 19,790 people were convicted with a DUI, resulting in stricter penalties to encourage responsible driving. Amongst these penalties were more extended jail times and increased fines. A DUI in Virginia tends to cost around $5,000 and $20,000. Although Virginia has historically strict DUI legislation, there has been a recent bill passed which eliminates mandatory minimum sentencing, causing many residents to be fearful for the future of road safety in Virginia.

Senate Bill 1443

Senate Bill 1443 was proposed in 2020 to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and modify sentences for felony offenses, including DUI charges. This bill seems to be a part of a much more significant criminal justice reform, but many Virginians believe the legislation is “missing the mark.” This bill is set to eliminate Virginia’s enhanced jail penalties for grievous repeat offenders and “high-risk” impaired drivers, putting them back on the streets with a slap on the wrist and endangering local drivers.

Differing Views

While some Virginians believe the mandatory minimum sentencing is harsh and unnecessary, a large community of residents are fighting back to keep enforcing these stricter laws and fees. According to a letter to the editor for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, these mandatory minimum jail sentences are put into place to penalize the most grievous offenders of the law in Virginia. These laws are used to target repeated convicts of drunk driving or those pulled over with a blood alcohol concentration level two or more times over the state’s legal limit.

Those in favor of strict DUI laws argue that both repeat convicts of DUIs and drivers with extremely high blood alcohol content make up most drunk drivers resulting in fatalities during car accidents. Both repeat and “high BAC” motorists are labeled as “high risk” drunk drivers according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with data indicating that 67 percent of drunk driving fatalities in the U.S. involve at least one driver with a BAC level at .15 or higher.

The Uncertain Future with Limited DUI Legislation

On February 5th, 2021, Senate Bill 1443 passed with a 21-17 vote, leaving many Virginians unsure of the future of traffic safety and DUI penalties in their state. To many, this bill seemed to pass at the most frightening time when drunk driving deaths and impaired driving have increased with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some even argue that now is the time to push for even stricter legislation rather than lessen DUI laws. Governor Ralph Northam announced early in January that every 33 hours, someone is killed by a drunk driving accident. Those who are victims of drunk driving incidents, reach out to Fairfax DUI lawyers for legal guidance and representation.

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