By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A Washington state lawmaker is seeking to strengthen drunken driving laws that are among the nation's most lenient with a proposal to deem as a felony a fourth conviction within a decade for driving under the influence of alcohol.
State Senator Mike Padden, a Republican, on Thursday held a hearing with an upper chamber committee in Olympia in which victims of impaired drivers and law-enforcement officials testified that stronger laws were needed to curb fatal car wrecks.
"As law enforcement and others testified today, by the time someone has reached their fourth DUI, they clearly pose a serious danger to everyone else on the road, and require a higher level of intervention to keep them from putting others in harm again and again," Padden said in a statement.
Under current law, a conviction for driving under the influence becomes a felony on the fifth offense. However, there is also a range of penalties for vehicular assault or vehicular homicide, both felonies, such as fines and prison time.
Among the 45 U.S. states that have laws that make felons of repeated drunken driving offenders, most make a fourth conviction a felony.
A handful of states, including neighboring Idaho and Oregon, make a third conviction a felony offense. No other state requires five convictions within a decade for a felony, Padden said.
Washington state also has the nation's weakest law when it comes to prison time for those convicted of repeated drunken driving, Padden said. One year in prison is the most an offender could get.
State lawmakers have suggested lowering the felony-DUI threshold since 2013, but a similar proposal last year failed to advance over cost concerns. This year's bill, introduced earlier this month, has drawn bipartisan support.
Padden said he was looking at ways to keep costs down but that higher costs for prison are worthwhile. The bill covers those impaired by alcohol and drugs.
In 2013, the latest year for which data is available, the state saw 436 fatalities in car crashes, with drivers impaired by drugs or liquor involved in 220 of those, Washington State Patrol spokesman Robert Calkins said. In 127 cases, the drivers had a blood-alcohol content above the .08 percent threshold.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)