North Carolina should clarify and possibly tighten drunken driving laws, a state task force said yesterday, reports the Charlotte Observer. The group will examine why conviction rates aren’t higher. The state convicts slightly more than half of those charged with alcohol-related driving offenses said. Nearly half of the 86,000 charges in fiscal 2003 will be dismissed by prosecutors and judges — or suspects will be found not guilty at trial. “The low conviction rates are unacceptable. We have to do something to fix that,” said task force member Joe Blick, a Greenville judge. “That’s why we’re here — to figure out how to do that.”
The Governor’s Task Force on Driving While Impaired began setting priorities for how to improve drunken driving laws. The 35-member task force of lawmakers, prosecutors, police, and other experts will recommend changes to the General Assembly in January. Darrell Jernigan, director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program, said, “No single solution will suffice. We have to go at it from all different angles. Hopefully, we’ll come up with solutions that will lower crash rates and fatalities.” Task force members said they’re concerned not only about the conviction rate, but about disparities in rates among judges. An Observer investigation found judicial districts’ rates of convictions vary widely, from about 10 percent to more than 95 percent. “I think the solution is to go in district by district and examine what the problems are for each area,” said Peter Gilchrist, a task force member and Mecklenburg district attorney. “There are not always the same problems, so the solutions need to be different.” The task force will also consider whether to lower the legal alcohol limit from 0.08 to as low as 0.05 or 0.06, a move that would give North Carolina the nation’s most restrictive law.