Against the backdrop of a busted budget and with several members running for governor, it will be hard for the 2010 Legislature to agree on much. But both Republicans and Democrats should be able to quickly coalesce around Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposals to stiffen drunken-driving laws.
To be sure, some progress on stopping this scourge has already been made: A report released last week by the state Department of Public Safety found that alcohol-related deaths hit a low in 2008 at a still-staggering 163 fatalities. Still, the 14 percent annual decrease in fatalities in Minnesota compared with a 19 percent drop nationally. Most notably, alcohol-related crashes accounted for more than one-third of all traffic fatalities.
Statewide, there were 4,245 alcohol-related crashes, with 2,896 people injured. Law enforcement is doing its best, with an average of 98 DWI arrests a day and a total of 35,794 in 2008.
While the trends are moving in the right direction, it's time to get more aggressive, especially by taking advantage of ignition interlock technology, which acts as a Breathalyzer that won't allow a car to start if alcohol is detected.
"If you don't breathe, you don't leave," Pawlenty pronounced in introducing the plan. And he means everyone convicted of a DWI, not just second-time offenders, as happens in many of the 47 states that have some version of the law.
But while this new rule would be tougher, it's actually a measure of compassion, according to Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion, who described the use of ignition interlocks as "a balance that's reasonable," one that allows people "who are working, and going to school, and are productive -- but make a stupid decision and get a DWI" to continue to drive, and doesn't take them out of society by taking their licenses away. This is especially important in greater Minnesota, according to Campion, because there are so few public transportation options.
"It's a tremendous tool, but it's not a silver bullet," University of Minnesota Law School Prof. Steve Simon, who studies drunken-driving laws, said of interlock systems. "It contributes to their sobriety, and if it's used with education or treatment programs it will increase the likelihood of long-term sobriety and decrease long-term recidivism."
And unlike so many fiscal issues that will torment the Legislature this year, it's relatively cheap: Offenders have to pay for the device to be installed, with costs usually running about $100 a month.
Other legislative changes being proposed involve lowering the blood-alcohol level at which tougher penalties are triggered to 0.15, from 0.20. The state also wants to crack down on repeat offenders, significantly extending license revocation periods, depending on the number of offenses. As the ongoing Star Tribune series "Smashed'' highlighted, 46,748 Minnesota drivers have at least four DWI arrests.
It's clear the fiscal crisis the state faces will dominate the discourse in St. Paul this session. Efforts to develop stiffer rules on drunken driving are not likely to get the attention the budget battle will attract. With smart public policy decisions, however, lawmakers can make Minnesota roads safer and save lives.