Driving while under the influence of alcohol and drugs remains a serious problem in America despite the incredible strides made over the past few decades to reduce the carnage drunken drivers leave in their wake.
That was painfully clear a few days ago when a 28-year-old was killed in Snohomish County on Interstate 5 when a vehicle driven by a suspected drunken driver entered the freeway going in the wrong direction. Aaron Gentry, a 56-year-old man with six previous drunken-driving convictions, was arrested Sunday for investigation of vehicular homicide.
Yes, you read that right — six previous drunken-driving convictions. How could that happen?
That question will likely be asked by state lawmakers. Just two years ago, the Legislature beefed up the state’s drunken driving laws specifically to get repeat offenders off the road.
A law passed in 2017 made a fourth DUI in a 10-year period a felony punishable by up to 17 months in prison.
Legislators led by Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, pushed for years to change state law that didn’t allow a felony charge until the fifth DUI arrest. And that was a compromise. Padden wanted to make three DUI convictions enough to do prison time.
Dale Panattoni, whose father-in-law was killed by a drunken driver in Yakima in 2014, testified before the Legislature on at least three occasions seeking tougher DUI laws. He said he believes waiting until the fourth DUI to charge a driver with a felony was lenient.
“Once is a mistake. Twice is a pattern,” Panattoni said. “The third time should be a felony.”
We concur. Habitual drunken driving can’t be tolerated.
Unfortunately, even the toughest laws don’t change the behavior of some people. In the tragic death of the 28-year-old woman, Gentry was driving with a suspended license at the time of the crash. He has two convictions for driving under the influence in the past 10 years, and four convictions before that, according to the Washington State Patrol.
Moving forward, lawmakers should take a look at this and other egregious cases in an effort to see if flaws in the law allowed them to occur.
Maybe moving to make a third conviction over a 20-year period a felony would be the wake-up call needed to further reduce getting behind the wheel after drinking or doing drugs.
And lawmakers should also consider what sort of preventive steps — treatment options for alcohol and drug addictions — could stop these tragedies from occurring.