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California falls short in passing protections against drunk driving, group says

File: Vehicles slowly drive through a DUI checkpoint conducted by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in Bellflower on March 6, 2014. A new study suggests California can do better in adopting regulations to prevent drunk driving.
File: Vehicles slowly drive through a DUI checkpoint conducted by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in Bellflower on March 6, 2014. A new study suggests California can do better in adopting regulations to prevent drunk driving.
Stuart Palley/KPCC

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California ranks just middle of the road in adopting strong traffic safety laws, according to a new report from Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

The state has strict regulations protecting consumers and the environment, but the group concluded California falls short in areas that could keep residents safe on the streets.

Traffic fatalities rose faster in California than the national average between 2015 and 2016 and about a third of all traffic fatalities in the state are caused by drunk driving.

The nonprofit group rated the 50 states on whether they adopted 16 recommended regulations to address the top safety threats on the roads. California scored well for its laws on child seat safety and seat belt enforcement, but the group said it can do better to prevent drunk driving.

Colleen Sheehy-Church, the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, part of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety alliance, said many states have required breath-testing devices to unlock the car ignitions for those convicted of driving under the influence.

"This little device is the only thing that can stop an individual from getting into that vehicle if he or she is driving impaired," she said.

California doesn’t yet require the device. But starting in 2019, it will for repeat DUI offenders and those who cause injury with their cars. First-time offenders will have the option of using the device as an incentive for fewer driving restrictions.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and MADD are pushing jurisdictions to expand the requirement to include all first-time offenders, just as 30 other states have done.

A report by the California DMV on a five-year pilot program in four counties found that ignition interlock devices were almost 75 percent more effective than license suspension at keeping first-time DUI offenders from repeating the offense.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and MADD have also pushed California to make driving drunk with a child in the car a felony crime of child endangerment.

The report also calls for stricter rules for teen drivers, including limits on passengers, driving at night, and a complete prohibition of cell phone use, whether it is hands free or not.