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Editorial: Tougher DWI rules are a critical step

A Suffolk County deputy sheriff checks cars for

A Suffolk County deputy sheriff checks cars for impaired drivers at a DWI checkpoint along the Long Island Expressway in Medford. (Jan. 1, 2010) Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

It's madness to allow repeat-offense drunken drivers, especially those who have been convicted as many as five times, to regain their licenses. In 2010, 28 percent of injurious crashes in New York State that involved alcohol also involved a driver with three or more convictions for driving while intoxicated.

So Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is right to direct the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue tougher regulations. Assemb. James Tedisco (R-Scotia) asked Cuomo to do it after similar legislation did not pass, and Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Merrick), the primary proponent of DWI bills in the Senate, applauded the governor's move .

The new regulations will permanently revoke the licenses of those with five or more alcohol- or drug-related driving convictions. They'll do the same to any driver with three such convictions and one other serious driving offense, a big concern to Tedisco, who says reckless drivers are as dangerous as drunk ones.

The rules also expand the use of alcohol-interlock devices for multiple offenders who get their licenses back. It will make it impossible to evade mandatory suspension and revocation periods by taking the DMV's Drinking Driver Program course, and it will create a restricted license to limit the driving of some offenders.

Almost 30 percent of fatal crashes in New York are alcohol-related. They kill more than 300 people and injure 6,000 each year. Drinking and driving are almost inseparable in the suburbs. Outside the bars are parking lots, and out come some drunks to drive home.

Harsher penalties over the last two decades have reduced drunken driving. But the threat of a license revocation, to someone willing to flout the DWI laws repeatedly, won't mean much. Studies show 75 percent of convicted drunken drivers will drive with a suspended or revoked license. The maximum penalties, even for felony aggravated unlicensed operation -- fines of $500 to $5,000 and prison (or probation) of up to four years -- aren't any harsher than the penalties for someone repeatedly convicted of DWI, nor will they be any more of a deterrent.

What the change will do is allow cops to arrest these repeat offenders every time they drive, not just when they drive drunk. This won't solve the DWI problem, but it'll help.