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PA's 2019 DUI Law: Here's What to Know in 2020

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Drivers in Pennsylvania will no longer skate through DUI arrests with minimal consequences. Starting in 2019, the laws changed so that a third or subsequent DUI is a mandatory felony charge, with stiffer sentencing guidelines as well. Those who do not make changes may have more than tarnished driving records, as a felony charge is a stain that remains on one’s criminal records for a lifetime.

 Many states tightened laws on gun possession and ownership, sexual harassment, and even dog ownership beginning in 2019. At least three, including Pennsylvania, enhanced DUI enforcement, including:

  • California’s new DUI law requires installation of ignition locks on vehicles owned by repeat DUI offenders. These disable the vehicle until a Breathalyzer test is passed.

  • Utah has imposed the toughest blood alcohol standard in the country, requiring drivers to have lower than .05 percent blood alcohol level.

  • Several other states have debated moving to a lower threshold for DUI, but did not make the change for 2019; some see the issue returning in this legislative term.

Historic change for Pennsylvania

Nearly 300 people died in alcohol-related auto accidents in the state in 2016 when the state logged over 10,250 DUI accidents, or nearly 30 per day. Yet Pennsylvania had no mandatory felony charge for DUI, even for third or subsequent incidents, making it one of the most lenient in the country. That meant that repeat offenders could often count on misdemeanor charges despite being habitual drunk drivers.

 To the state’s credit, zero tolerance laws were in force for those under age 21, and impaired driving under the influence of drugs was also considered DUI prior to the new law.

 The provisions of the new law include:

  • Increasing jail sentences for DUIs causing unintentional death to five years for first-time offenders, and to seven years for a person with two or more DUIs;

  • Increasing financial penalties for those who commit DUI offenses without a driver’s license or on a suspended license;

  • Adding mandatory jail time to all second- or subsequent offenses: 60 days for second offenses and six months for a third or subsequent offenses. 

National standards

In the 1970s, alcohol was a factor in about 60 percent of fatal car accidents. The federal government stepped in, requiring seat belts and eventually airbags in cars as well as forcing states to raise the drinking age to 21 and to impose blood alcohol limits for drivers as a means of accessing highway funds. The measures saved an estimated 150,000 lives in 20 years, particularly those ages 16 to 20.

 The current national standard of .08 percent blood alcohol level is approximately equivalent to a 160-pound man having three drinks or a 120-pound woman having one or two drinks. The .05 blood alcohol level cuts the number of drinks nearly in half. About 10,000 people across the country were killed in DUI-related vehicle crashes in 2017, or about a third of all crashes. 

European countries currently have a  .05 blood alcohol limit for drivers, and some countries have imposed a 0 blood alcohol level law. Many believe that American states are likely to adopt the same standards over time, similar to enhancements added to DUI charges if a child is found in the vehicle with the drunk driver.

 Many states currently require an ignition lock system that only allows the car to start when the driver blows a clear Breathalyzer test – even on a first DUI offense. A majority of states require at least a brief day in jail for a first offense, and up to 21 days for a second offense.

 Rhode Island and South Dakota are frequently criticized for having the most lenient drunk driving enforcement in the country (Pennsylvania was third on the list before imposing the new law).  The national Mothers Against Drunk Driving rates states on their standards for penalties, use of sobriety checkpoints, immediate confiscation of driver’s licenses, imposition of ignition lock systems, mandatory sentences, and other points.

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