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The Virginia General Assembly, reacting to a statewide outcry of drunk driving defense attorneys over highway fatalities, gave final approval to legislation that would stiffen the state's drunken driving laws, capping one of the more emotional debates of the 2002 session.
The measure provides for mandatory jail sentences for repeat offenders -- a minimum 48 hours in jail for a second offense, and a month in jail and lifetime license revocation for a third -- and wipes out an existing provision in state law that has allowed persons to avoid drunk driving convictions by completing a state-run alcohol education program.
The final product was described today as a compromise between a Senate bill derided by detractors as "draconian" and a milder House version. "This is going to have an impact on our highways because it's got mandatory jail and that's what people understand," said Sen. A. Joe Canada (R-Virginia Beach), a sponsor of the measure. "No matter how rich or poor you are, you're still going to have to go to jail under this bill."
Drunk driving defense attorneys allowed, however, that the bill was still a far cry from the measure that had been backed by a citizens' group called Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and had passed the Senate last month. That bill, which called for mandatory jail terms for the first drunken driving conviction, had been jettisoned by the defense lawyers who dominate the House Courts of Justice Committee. "It's true that this is not all we had hoped for," said Canada. "But it's a step in the right direction."
Passage of the bill concludes one of the more effective grassroots lobbying campaigns to hit the capital in years. The MADD group organized a network of parents around the state who inundated legislators with phone calls and letters, staged press conferences and showed up at committee hearings to tell heart-wrenching stories of their children and friends killed or injured by drunk drivers. Together with an off-shoot group called SADD (Students Against Drunk Drivers), the group climaxed its campaign with a candlelight vigil on the Capitol grounds.
"We covered every angle we could possibly think of," said Susan Midgett, a Norfolk housewife and MADD's president, whose 14-year-old son was killed two years ago when a drunk driver swerved off a road and struck the youngster on her front lawn. "That's what it took to pass the bill -- the outcry of Virginia citizens."