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Monday, December 29, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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James Vesely

Take A Deep Breath Now, And Try To Start Your Car

Times Associate Editorial Page Editor

ONE of the most casual and horrifying traffic fatalities on the Eastside is the moral ballast behind a proposed law that will change the way drunken drivers are treated in Washington.

Casual and horrifying describes the death of Mary Johnsen, who was walking with her husband, Keith, along a road on the Sammamish Plateau when Mary, 38, was struck by a car and thrown 146 feet. When Keith Johnsen got to her, he tried to resuscitate his wife but, as he testified later, he knew she was gone.

His testimony to the court is one of the most heartbreaking you'll ever read. Johnsen said it was about 7 on a Saturday evening in July when he and his wife went out for their usual walk, one they had taken often for 10 years. When the green minivan struck Mary, her hand was pulled out of his. He ran after the car, waving his hands, but it didn't stop. When he got to his wife, there was no life in her eyes, and his breath, blown into her body, could not revive her.

The driver was Susan West, who was just about Mary's age - 39. West later pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide, hit-and-run driving, reckless driving and reckless endangerment. When stopped by police, she recorded a blood-alcohol level of 0.34 percent. That's three times the level permitted in Washington, where a 0.10 percent alcohol level is expected to be reduced even lower to .08 percent in the coming weeks.

The tragedy of Mary Johnsen's death is entwined in the tragedy of Susan West's 20-year history of drunken driving and the legacy of a system that allowed her to drive stone-blind drunk. The sentencing judge called her case unique, and in a way it is; fewer than 200 people out of 30,000 stopped by the Washington state patrol blow higher than 0.30 percent blood alcohol. Few of us could walk with that level, let alone pilot a minivan down a highway. The judge gave Susan West nine years in prison.

Now comes Keith Johnsen together with the Eastside's Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Issaquah, proposing that drivers recording a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 percent or higher be required to install an ignition interlock system on their cars. It's part of a package of laws intended to crack down on inebriated drivers that will begin its march through the Legislature when the new session begins Jan. 12.

In addition to the ignition lock, the bills would allow impoundment of vehicles of drivers operating vehicles with revoked or suspended licenses; suspension of license for 90 days for the first DUI conviction and increasing jail time and penalties three times what they are now. Pretty tough stuff.

I support the package and I hope you will, too, even though the interlock system is bound to be caught up in questions about effectiveness and legality.

The Ignition Interlock device backed by Rossi and others requires a sober driver, there's no other way to describe it. Before the car will start, the driver has to blow into a breathing tube and hum at the same time. The humming foils blowing stored air into the tube. After the car starts, the device requires a driver to blow into the tube at random times so that starting the car with another person's breath won't work. Starting the car and then letting it run while you stop in at a bar won't work either.

No doubt, a clever driver can foil the system somehow, but the barriers to that are high and beyond my abilities. The device I saw shut down if the user had taken some aerosol breath freshener, because of its residual alcohol. Cost to the driver is $2 a day rental for the device plus installation charges, which the state may pay in some cases. About 3,000 drivers are estimated to blow as high as 0.15 in the state at any one time, meaning the company could have 3,000 customers in Washington.

This time of year, we get bombarded with the reminders of the dangers of driving and drinking. Sometimes it doesn't stick. It didn't for nearly 20 years of Susan West's driving record, and it didn't take for the 444 fatalities nationwide that took place this season last year - including 331 DUI tragedies in Washington last year. It also didn't take for the driver who swerved across a median strip in downtown Memphis four years ago and killed one of the best guys and the best newspapermen I've ever known. He wasn't drinking that New Year's Eve, just driving home from work at the Commercial-Appeal.

We've all got our stories, haven't we? Memories of people killed or maimed, even memories of driving a little tipsy ourselves and getting home OK. Nothing wrong with a glass of good cheer at this time of year. I'm sure I'll have one myself. At the same time, I'll support a bill that keeps the highly stupid off the roads or stops them from starting a car. Think what a terrible thing it would be to have someone's hand snatched from yours by a green minivan.

James Vesely's column focusing on Eastside issues appears Mondays on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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