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States take tougher, quicker action to stop drunken drivers

Thousands of drunken drivers are now being pulled off the nation's highways - and with fewer questions asked.

* Lawmakers in at least 35 states passed tough new penalty or enforcement measures in 1982.

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* Similar or even stricter statutes are pending, or expected to be filed, within the next few weeks in all but three states - Kansas, Kentucky, and Maine.

Particular attention is being focused on recommendations by the President's Commission on Drunk Driving, calling for speedier action. These include provisions that can be administered uniformly around the nation. Penalties currently vary widely from region to region - thus leading many judges and juries to refrain from punishing drunken drivers.

One especially appealing approach involves on-the-spot suspension of drivers' licenses by police. Four states - three in the past year and a half - have moved with considerable success in on-the-spot license revocation of those stopped for driving under the influence of liquor.

Similar instant tough drunk-driver measures begin April 1 in a fifth state, and lawmakers in at least four others are considering following suit with the administrative revocation approach, one of the major recommendations of the presidential commission.

Buoyed by the sharp reduction of liquor-related traffic deaths in his home state of Iowa, William N. Plymat, a member of the presidential panel, which was appointed last spring, is dedicating substantial energies to selling the idea elsewhere.

The retired insurance executive and former Republican state senator views the threat of immediate, lengthy suspension of a motorist's right to operate a vehicle as an effective curb on drunk driving.

Under the tough Iowa statute, first implemented last July 1, an arresting officer can seize a license if the driver refuses to take a breath test on the scene, or flunks it by having a blood alcohol content of 0.10 percent or more.

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Revocation is 120 days for first offenders, 240 days for a second arrest, and one year for the third. Also provided are tougher penalties for drunk driving - one year behind bars.

With administrative revocation, the driver retains the right to appeal the loss of his license, but during that often lengthy judicial process the suspension holds. In hardship cases, temporary permits to operate a vehicle to and from work can be granted, but even stiffer penalties are imposed should the motorist be picked up for drunk driving during the period of revocation.

The new law, during its first six months, cost 7,887 drivers their licenses - 6,383 for four months, 1,077 for eight months, and 427 for a full year, according to James Fetters, the driving improvements manager for Iowa's department of transportation.

During the same period, Iowa's liquor-related road death total was 97, or 59 fewer than during the corresponding period in 1981.

While a number of factors, including faster treatment and improved care of traffic accident victims, contributed to the improvement, state transportation safety officials attribute the better record substantially to the tougher curbs on drunk driving.

Of the 7,887 license-revoked drivers, 6,693 took the breath test and failed, with an average blood alcohol count of 0.19 percent. The level of intoxication of the remaining 1,194 is unknown, since they refused to submit to the test.

Similar on-site administrative revocations of licenses also appear to be working effectively in Minnesota, Delaware, and West Virginia.

Oklahoma drunk drivers, beginning in April, will be next to face on-the-spot license suspensions for not less than 90 days.

Mr. Plymat, who pledges to continue his crusade in behalf of such measures, is enthusiastic about the prospects for early passage in Utah, where Gov. Scott M. Matheson solidly backs the effort.

Within the past few days a proposed administrative revocation law has been introduced into the California Assembly. Legislative committees in at least two other states - Alaska and North Carolina - also are expected to take up such measures during the next few weeks.

Several papers in Iowa, including the Cedar Rapids Gazette, regularly print the names and addresses of those whose licenses are revoked for drunk drivering. Arrests for operating a motor vehicle under the influence of liquor similarly are publicized in a number of other dailies around the US, including the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Plymat notes.

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