Nebraska’s DUI law debate continues

O Street in downtown Lincoln is home to many bars that serve UNL students on weekends.

Story and Photos by Brandi Susnjar , NewsNetNebraska

According to the Nebraska Department of Highway Safety, Nebraska had 12,399 driving under the influence arrests and 46 alcohol-related fatality crashes in 2010.  Those numbers represent a decrease of about 1,000 alcohol-related arrests from 2009.  Even so, lawmakers and anti-drinking and driving advocates continue to debate DUI laws in Nebraska. They hope to stop repeat DUI offenders like Omaha’s Chris Peare.

Arrested

In January 2009, Peare made a split-second decision that changed his thinking on drinking and driving.

“I was almost there,” said Peare.

The 19-year-old was out drinking with friends in Omaha. He told them he was tired and wanted to go home. Instead of calling his mom to pick him up, he decided to drive home.  “(I was) Just two blocks away from my house when the cop pulled me over,” said Peare.

After making a turn without using his car’s turn blinker, Peare saw a police car’s flashing lights in his rear-view mirror and knew he was in big trouble. The police officer gave him a field sobriety test. Peare had a blood alcohol level of .14, almost two times the legal limit. “I was put on probation,” Peare said. “Six months and I had to pay a $500 fine.”

A close call

Lincoln’s Taylor Schmidgall was arrested for drinking and driving in 2010. The 21-year-old had spent the night drinking with friends and was two blocks from her house when her vehicle swerved and hit a tree. Schmidgall’s windshield shattered on impact, embedding glass in her skin.

Convicted of drinking and driving, Schmidgall had to do community service, have an interlock ignition system installed in her vehicle, take alcohol awareness classes and lost her driver’s license for 30 days.

Schmidgall says that wasn’t the worse part of her experience. “I had to pay $4,000 when it was all said and done,” said Schmidgall. “I had four drinks that night. So in retrospect, each of my drinks cost me $1,000.”

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According to the Nebraska Department of Highway Safety, having a .08 blood alcohol content can cause impaired perception.

Education a difference?

Many wonder what it will take to keep people from putting innocent lives at risk when they drink and drive.  Currently,  Omaha Senator Burke Harr is sponsoring a resolution, LR249, in the Nebraska legislature. Harr’s resolution would ask the state to identify the three most successful DUI rehabilitation programs in the U.S. and model itself off those program’s most effective methods and techniques.

Omaha Prosecutor Marty Conboy thinks another way to deter drinking and driving is through education.

“I don’t think we give young people enough information,” said Conboy “Most people don’t get the education until they are caught drinking and driving. Most do wise up after their first DUI.  I would like to see them wise up before they drink and drive.”

Conboy sees thousands of drinking and driving cases a year. He is currently chairing a committee to draft a federal DUI law. He believes Nebraska has the best DUI law in the country.

“Our system in Nebraska is a good one,” said Conboy. “All the statistics show progress. We are doing a lot, but what is an acceptable number for innocent people dying? It’s selfish and thoughtless.” He says there is no excuse for drinking and driving.

Conboy has been the Omaha Prosecutor for nearly 25 years. He says progress has been made but the state needs to find new ways to deter drunk drivers.

“I believe arrest is important,” said Conboy. “But young people need more than just the fear of arrest. Young people just don’t pay attention and don’t care.”

Is Education enough?

Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, or MADD, believes in the three R’s: Restrict, Repay and Recover.

“Restricting means limiting their driving,” said Andrea Frazier, Court Monitoring Project Specialist for MADD. “We think all convicted drunk drivers should have ignition interlock.”

Ignition interlock systems require drivers to blow into a breathalyzer device every time they start their car. Your car won’t start unless you blow a zero blood alcohol level.

MADD knows that one of the most important things a person can do is recover from the DUI.

“If you have more than one DUI, then you probably have an alcohol dependency issue,” said Frazier. “It is important to get treatment.” Frazier says that education is important, but in order to help reduce repeat offenses, it is important for the community to support their law enforcement.

“There needs to be more safety check points,” said Frazier. “We aren’t against drinking, we are against drinking if you are not 21 and you are driving.”

Nebraska DUI laws

Frazier, like Conboy said Nebraska has some of the best drinking and driving laws in country.  According to the Nebraska Department of Highway Safety, on your first drinking and driving offense, your minimum fines and penalties could include license suspension for up to six months, an alcohol assessment and treatment program and a fine of $400. For your second offense, you could serve a minimum of 30 days in jail, fines up to $500, suspended license up to a year, and depending on the offense, you could be ordered by the court to install an ignition interlock system in your vehicle.

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According to the Nebraska Department of Roads, a .05 blood alcohol level could cause difficulty steering and reduce your response to emergency driving situations.

Another DUI

Peare’s says he got off pretty easy for his second DUI offense.  He was hanging out with friends and drinking beer when he offered to go rent a movie. “We wanted to watch a movie, so we were going to Blockbuster,” said Peare.  A police officer pulled him over.  “I wasn’t that drunk,” Peare said. “I only blew a .08 blood alcohol.”  The 20-year- old was convicted for driving under the influence and minor in possession. “I was on house arrest for 30 days,” said Peare.

Whether it’s education or harsher penalties that will stop repeat DUI offenders, Schmidgall and Peare have advice for those who think about driving after they’ve been drinking.

“Just don’t do it,” said Schmidgall.

“It’s not worth it,” said Peare.