CHEYENNE – The moment still plays in Carl McDonald’s head over and over again.
Then a Wyoming Highway Patrol division supervisor, McDonald spent New Year’s Day in 1998 with friends in Saratoga. When he returned from that outing, his life would never be the same.
“I got about halfway back and realized I was in cell (service) zone and I hadn’t checked with dispatch,” McDonald said. “So I called and I said, ‘Is everything quiet?’ It was a usual question of mine. The poor dispatcher – she was a good friend of mine – she said, ‘Yeah. Where are you?’”
As he pulled up to his home in Rawlins, McDonald saw a Highway Patrol cruiser sitting in front of the house. A colleague had to deliver the news that McDonald’s 5-year-old daughter had been killed in a car wreck on Interstate 80 near Green River.
The driver was McDonald’s ex-wife. They split up because she had problems with alcohol. On that New Year’s Day, she’d spent the whole day drinking, leading to a 0.22 blood-alcohol content at the time the wreck that killed their child occurred.
That day, McDonald had strong words with the prosecutor who would take on the case in Rock Springs. He said he knew Rock Springs wasn’t “the most aggressive place” for prosecuting drunken-driving offenses.
“I was going to demand action,” McDonald said.
McDonald would go on to work in advocacy, including with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and serving two terms on the Wyoming Governor’s Council on Impaired Driving. After retiring from the Wyoming Highway Patrol, McDonald worked for MADD for 10 years.
This week, McDonald has continued demanding action on drunken driving in Wyoming. He met with lawmakers in the Wyoming Legislature on Tuesday in Cheyenne.
The reason for his post-retirement visit is Senate File 86. The bill, which passed the Senate last week, would alter some of the state’s laws on drunken driving.
For the most part, McDonald said the bill is a good thing. Many drunken-driving offenders in Wyoming, he said, continue to drive illegally without interlock devices that measure a vehicle operator’s blood-alcohol content and prevent it from starting when alcohol is detected.
By removing a 45-day “hard suspension” on an offender’s driver’s license, McDonald said the interlock device can be installed immediately. He said statistics show that those who start using an interlock immediately after an offense are more likely to use the device throughout the mandated period. It also requires interlock devices for those receiving reduced sentences or deferred prosecution.
It’s good because Wyoming has issues with offenders’ interlock usage, McDonald said. Only 30 percent of those sentenced to use the devices actually do so, he said. People still need to use their vehicles, so they drive illegally – and possibly drunk.
But one word in the bill raised a red flag for MADD. A provision in the bill calls for those convicted of driving drunk with a 0.15 blood-alcohol content or higher to procure an interlock or participate in a “24/7 sobriety” program. Such programs, already being pilot tested in three Wyoming counties, require offenders to take breathalyzer tests twice daily.
The problem, McDonald said, is the “or.”
McDonald said the 24/7 sobriety programs aren’t a reliable way of stopping offenders from driving drunk.
“The problem with 24/7 programs, as we see it, is that a person can leave the sheriff’s office (after taking a test) at 7 p.m., go straight to a bar – in their vehicle – and drink heavily. Those people could drink up to a 0.14 (blood-alcohol content), then drive around endangering the community,” McDonald said. “If they’re careful and get 10 hours away from alcohol, they can blow zeroes (at their test the next morning). That doesn’t stop someone from drunk(en) driving.”
It’s a very personal issue for McDonald. Part of the terms of the court’s custody decision in his divorce stated neither parent could drink alcohol when in the presence of their daughter. McDonald said he could have asked the court to put an interlock device requirement on both parents, knowing the mother had issues with alcohol.
While there are now 55 interlock service centers throughout the state, there were none in 1998. McDonald said the idea behind putting the option for offenders to either participate in a 24/7 sobriety program or install an interlock seems to go back to accessibility in rural areas nowhere near a service center.
Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, the bill’s sponsor, did not return requests for comment Tuesday. Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, a co-sponsor, also did not respond.
While he understands the consideration, McDonald said MADD wants to put safety above offenders’ convenience. In the last 11 years, interlock providers have recorded 11,000 attempts by interlock users to start their vehicles while intoxicated, he said.
All MADD is asking, McDonald said, is that lawmakers change the “or” to “and.” He said lawmakers should require that severe or repeat offenders participate in both an interlock and 24/7 program. The key to it all is requiring those offenders to use interlock devices, McDonald said.
“They really do work,” he said. “This is a good tool, and we’ve got to use it.”
The Senate passed SF 86 with unanimous support on the floor and in the Judiciary Committee. It now moves to the House of Representatives, where it likely will be introduced this week.