WASHINGTON – When 18 people died in alcohol-related crashes in his Louisiana parish two years ago, Sheriff Craig Webre looked for new ways to combat drunken driving. Using laws already on the books, the sheriff found a simple answer.
Webre's department west of New Orleans started using a "no refusal" policy for suspected drunken drivers who declined breath tests. When someone pulled over for drunken driving refused to take a Breathalyzer, Webre's deputies sought prompt search warrants from judges to take blood samples and charge suspects if their blood-alcohol levels exceeded the legal limit of 0.08.
The number of people killed in alcohol-linked crashes in Lafourche Parish fell to 11 deaths in 2009. Drunken driving arrests doubled. This year, only five people have died in such crashes in the parish.
"The statistics and the lives that have been saved cannot be refuted," Webre said.
The Transportation Department highlighted the no refusal policy on Monday as a way to crack down on drunken driving during the holiday season. Nearly 11,000 people were killed in alcohol-impaired crashes in the U.S. in 2009. Two-thirds of the deaths involved a driver with a blood-alcohol content higher than the legal limit of .08.
About one in four drunken driving suspects refuse to take breath tests, the department said, and law enforcement officials described the approach as a loophole commonly used to avoid prosecution. The government said the no refusal initiative exists in 9 states — Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas and Utah — and others should adopt it.
"These aren't new laws or regulations," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "They're efforts to streamline existing procedures while protecting due process to ensure that drunk drivers can't skirt the consequences of their actions." LaHood said the department would help states implement the policy in their departments.
New Hampshire has the highest refusal rate at 81 percent. About two in five refuse tests in Massachusetts, Florida, Louisiana and Ohio.
States using the approach report more guilty pleas, fewer trials and more convictions.
Warren Diepraam, an assistant district attorney in Montgomery County, Texas, north of Houston, said nearly half of the suspected drunken drivers refused breath tests before authorities there used the policy. Since starting "no refusal nights," Diepraam said only about 10 percent of people in his county reject being tested.
"We've now gone almost two years in my jurisdiction with no fatalities," Diepraam said.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.gov/