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Public examining W.Va. drunken driving laws

June 28, 1999|By BRYN MICKLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The seeds for the next wave of drunken driving legislation in West Virginia may have been planted in a Berkeley County restaurant Monday night.

"It seems like every time we pick up the paper we read about somebody getting picked up for drunk driving. This is a major area of concern," state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said.

Rather than wait for solutions to come from state lawmakers, Unger has formed the Eastern Panhandle People's Empowerment Coalition to search for grass-roots level solutions.

A group of about 20 people that included Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, bar owners and police officers gathered in a side room at Brownie's Restaurant in Martinsburg to talk about a variety of ideas to decrease the number of intoxicated drivers on the road.

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Among the most common themes were suggestions to make drunken driving penalties harsher and implement mandatory alcohol education programs.

"I've heard people say the best way to kill someone in West Virginia is with a car. It sounds horrible, but I've heard people say that," West Virginia State Police Trooper Carl Mahood said.

West Virginia laws on drunken driving causing death have been toughened in recent years, but several people at Monday's meeting said more needs to be done.

First-time drunken drivers can be sentenced to up to six months in jail under current law but often serve only 24 hours, Mahood said.

Mahood suggested increasing the minimum sentence to a week in jail for first offenders and forcing convicted drunken drivers to repay the costs for public defenders.

"If he's got the money to buy beer, he should have the money to pay us for his attorney," Mahood said.

Other suggestions included impounding the cars of drunken drivers, community service and increasing the amount of monetary fines.

An attempt to allow West Virginia counties to make last call earlier than 3:30 a.m. stalled in the legislature earlier this year, Unger said.

"The support for that just isn't there in Charleston," he said.

Larry Luttrell, owner of Gables Night Club on U.S. 11 in Ridgeway, said the state needs to make alcohol training programs mandatory for all bar owners and employees.

The state has already trained more than 1,100 employees, managers and owners of alcohol establishments in West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia since beginning the Training and Education on Alcohol Management program last year, West Virginia ABC Training and Education Specialist Dick Weller said.

The four-hour TEAM class centers on preventing and identifying intoxication, as well as establishing designated driver programs.

The program encourages establishments to call the police if intoxicated patrons resist all other efforts to keep them from getting behind the wheel, Luttrell said.

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