Gov. Jack Markell signed into law two bills that toughen penalties for repeat DUI offenders in order to make streets safer for drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists who use Delaware roads.

Multiple DUI offenders now face the possibility of more time behind bars and mandatory treatment thanks to the newly enacted state legislation.

Gov. Jack Markell signed into law two bills Wednesday that toughen penalties for repeat DUI offenders in order to make streets safer for everyone who uses Delaware roads.

Markell signed the laws at Minquas Fire Company in Newport, flanked by police officers and emergency rescue personnel.

“Too many families have lost loved ones to the senseless and preventable crime of drunk driving, including my own cousin, who was killed by a drunk driver,” Markell said. “Everyone can make a decision about whether they are fit to drive before they stick a key in the ignition. 

“It’s a stupid, senseless decision to get behind the wheel drunk,” he said.

State Rep. Helene Keeley (D-Wilmington South) and State Senator Patricia Blevins (D-Elsmere) sponsored House Bill 168. This  bill is twofold in that it increases penalties for serious repeat offenders, while at the same time providing treatment for those who need it, said Catherine Rossi, a spokeswoman for Markell.

“Many of us have seen in the press reports of people being arrested for their fifth, sixth and even seventh DUI,” Keeley said. “In fact, since we passed these bills in June, at least two people have been arrested in Delaware for their sixth DUI.

“These repeat offenders are putting thousands of innocent people on the roads at risk and are a danger to society,” she said. “Strengthening the penalties and requiring more intensive treatment and monitoring will help save lives by keeping dangerous drivers off the road, and hopefully these drivers will get the help they need to not drive drunk again.”

Blevins said the new law strikes a good balance between tougher penalties and getting problem drinkers help.   

“If you’re up for your third DUI, you’re an alcoholic – no two ways about it,” she said. “And to keep our highways safe, you need to be off the road receiving help and treatment. The treatment component of this new law is going to not only make our highways safer, but also will help people start the process of rebuilding their lives.”

House Bill 174 is also sponsored by Keeley and Blevins and co-sponsored by State Rep. William Carson (D-Smyrna). This legislation creates the crime of vehicular assault in the third degree, a class B misdemeanor, and enhances penalties for vehicular assault and homicide to better reflect the seriousness of those offenses.

“Creating a new criminal offense is something we don’t do lightly,” said Blevins, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and majority leader.  “But this new law recognizes the need to deal with people who, through criminal negligence, turn their cars into weapons and hurt people.”

Biden credited Blevins and Keeley for taking the lead in getting this legislation into the hands of Markell. The state must be smarter in how it fights crime with a penalty structure that’s tougher and has a deterring effect. But the laws also get help to people that need it so that they do not destroy their lives or the lives of others, he said.

“When you’re a fifth, sixth and seventh offender, you’ve been begun to forfeit your rights to be on the road,” Biden said. “So, we had to come up with a stronger penalty structure and mandatory sentencing to put them away and take them off our streets.

“As part of their sentence, they’ll go to a mandatory, 90-day program, where they are tested everyday to see if in fact they are sober,” he said. “The reality is we know people that do this almost invariably have a chronic, serious disease and don’t think twice about putting the key in the ignition, let alone having their next drink.”

Staff from the governor’s office, Attorney General’s Office, the Delaware Criminal Justice Council, Delaware State Police and the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council helped draft the legislation.

According to the Delaware Office of Highway Safety,  23 percent of the fatalities on the First State’s roads so far this year have involved alcohol. In 2010, 38 percent of fatalities on the road involved alcohol, and in 2009 41 percent involved alcohol.