Drunk driving is dangerous, whether on the highway or a gravel road or front yard on private property. When someone is operating a car or other vehicle under the influence, they’re endangering themselves and others.
Last year, the West Virginia Legislature thought allowing police to penalize someone for breaking the law on their own land was too draconian, so they passed a bill to decriminalize DUIs on private roads and property.
As anyone who follows the Legislature or any governing body at any level knows, new rules or laws can have unintended consequences. It’s best to size those up, or at least consider what they might be, before passing new laws.
In this case, though, the Legislature knew of at least one potential issue, with opponents of the bill noting that the federal government could withhold road funding over the proposal. The law is in conflict with the Federal Highway Administration’s DUI zero-tolerance policy.
Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, reminded the House that highways funding was threatened back in 1986, when West Virginia initially refused to comply with new federal regulations raising the drinking age from 18 to 21. Trying to supersede federal policy at the state level rarely works out.
But the Legislature forged ahead with the private-property DUI repeal, anyway, and now the Highway Administration is poised to withhold $58 million a year in road funds if West Virginia remains out of compliance with federal policy. Now, the Legislature is burdened with undoing this gaffe, something that could have been avoided if lawmakers paid heed to warnings last year.
Obviously, the law has to be undone, because the state can’t take that sort of financial hit. But it also makes sense from a public safety standpoint.
Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, claimed the 2019 bill was about personal liberty, calling it “the right to act stupid on your own property.” Certainly, property owners have that right, to a point. Once those actions infringe on the rights of others or seriously threaten someone’s safety, that right ends.
It was a flawed policy to begin with, and those who pushed this bill through last year should have thought harder about the ramifications.