Patrick Gannon: Public safety is focus of new legislation

Published 9:07 am Saturday, May 21, 2016

RALEIGH — When politicians talk about government getting back to its core responsibilities, they speak mainly about public safety and welfare, education and transportation.

One of those responsibilities — public safety and welfare — is getting a good deal of attention early in this legislative session on a number of fronts and from both sides of the aisle.

Early in this lawmaking period, which began less than a month ago, legislators are considering bills allowing better access to life-saving opioid overdose medicines, tougher penalties for impaired boaters who seriously injure or kill people and requiring ignition interlock devices for all convicted drunken drivers, among other public safety-related measures.

By the time you read this, the full Senate likely will have passed legislation making it more likely that family members of people with heroin or prescription painkiller problems can get drugs that reverse potentially fatal overdoses. Experts say naloxone injections or nasal sprays might save hundreds of additional lives annually in North Carolina. Dr. Randall Williams, the state health director, has called opioid overdoses “the public health crisis of our time.”

This is also igniting more debate in this state over the volume of painkillers prescribed by doctors.

Meanwhile, a bill that passed the House early this session would increase the penalties for impaired boaters who injure or kill someone on the water to mirror penalties for impaired car drivers who do the same thing. It seems logical, but it took the death of 17-year-old Sheyenne Marshall on Lake Norman last year to spur legislators to act. The bill, known as “Sheyenne’s Law,” passed the House unanimously and awaits consideration in the Senate.

Rep. Larry Pittman, a Concord Republican, sponsored the House bill.

“Dead is dead,” he told a legislative committee. “Whether you do it by driving a car while impaired or driving a boat while impaired, there’s no difference to the victim. There’s no difference to the family.”

In 2015, 20 people died in boating accidents, seven of which were caused by impaired boaters, according to the Wildlife Resources Commission. Last year, 14 serious injuries were caused by boaters under the influence.

Also recently, Mothers Against Drunk Driving held a press conference to steer attention toward bills sitting in the House and Senate that would mandate ignition interlock devices for all motorists convicted of drunken driving. The devices require users to blow into them to ensure they haven’t been drinking before they can start their vehicles. Currently, North Carolina requires ignition interlocks for one year for repeat DWI offenders and for first-time offenders who had a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 or higher when caught. About half of the states — and growing — require the devices for all DWI convicts.

Advocates for increased interlock requirements say license suspension isn’t enough, as many offenders continue to drive under the influence. The idea has the support of at least several powerful legislators in the House and Senate. Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, said he hoped the legislation would become law this summer.

With both opioids and impaired driving and boating, the death statistics are staggering and aren’t getting better.

As the state budget process and legislative session continues, these issues should remain on the front burner, and the efforts of Democratic and Republican legislators on these and other public safety topics shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Patrick Gannon is editor of The Insider State Government News Service in Raleigh. Reach him at