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Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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Stopping drunk driving is a fight that never ends

Those convicted of driving under the influence generally are ordered to attend a victim impact class. In Hillsborough County, that means they are likely to hear Linda Unfried tell how a drunken driver killed her sister, Josie, in 1983.

“Thirty-three years is a long time,” she said. “I’ve learned to live with it, but the hurt never goes away.”

It’s kind of expected those in the audience will have the good sense not to drink before they show up.

Alas, Unfried was with three other panelists and 140 offenders recently at the Falkenburg Road Jail in Brandon when a young woman showed up for the class with alcohol on her breath. Officials were suspicious of her look and general behavior. She was given a Breathalyzer test that showed .032 percent alcohol in her system.

“Those aren’t actors on that panel. They’re real people who endured tragedies. For her to show up with alcohol in her system was like a slap in the face,” said Unfried, who co-founded the Tampa chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving after the accident that killed her sister.

Don’t drink and drive. The message has been auto-programmed into our brains for decades, and it is one of the few things nearly everyone agrees with — in theory, anyway. Yet, the FBI estimates that on a given day about 300,000 people gamble with their lives — or yours — by driving drunk.

The National Department of Transportation says about one-third of those arrested or convicted for DUI are repeat offenders. While there are stiff penalties for DUI, especially for those caught a second or third time, there is no guarantee someone won’t let booze overpower their brain and reach for their car keys.

What to do?

Maybe something.

There are measures under consideration in the Legislature to strengthen the point of just how serious this problem is. They provide for stiffer penalties and expanded use of ignition interlocks for those with DUI convictions. The driver has to blow into the device before the car will start. If it detects alcohol, no dice.

This is especially in the news because tow truck operator Rogelio Perez-Borroto was struck and killed this week while trying to aid stranded motorists along the Howard Frankland Bridge. Allison Huffman of Riverview was later arrested and charged with leaving the scene of a crash involving death.

She allegedly admitted to officers that she was driving the car that hit Borroto and she fled because she was “scared.” She had a valid driver’s license despite three previous DUI arrests.

Huffman has not been charged with DUI in this case and probably never will be, because she wasn’t arrested for many hours after the early morning accident.

My initial knee-jerk was the state should permanently take away an offender’s license after a second DUI conviction. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t stop someone from getting behind the wheel anyway. The driver in the accident that killed Unfried’s sister had a suspended license.

Permanent installation of an interlock after a second DUI might be a better idea.

Technology is even in the works that would match the device to the offender’s breath, like a DNA strand. That would keep another person from being able to blow into it and start the car.

Even though her sister died more than three decades ago, Unfried has never let up on the fight to keep impaired motorists off the road.

For that work, she has been honored many times by organizations throughout the city. In 2013, she was named a community hero by the Tampa Bay Lightning. She received a $50,000 check, which she gave to MADD.

It’s a fight the community has to win.

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