05/05/05 — Study would help reduce number of breathalyzer test refusals

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Study would help reduce number of breathalyzer test refusals

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on May 5, 2005 1:48 PM

Several Wayne County agencies are participating in a study designed to reduce drunken driving on the highways.

The Health Department received a $22,246 grant for the six-month effort, with hopes to secure local funding when the project concludes in June.

In 2003, drinking and driving caused 36 percent of the highway fatalities in the state. Stronger laws have reduced the number of people who drink and drive, but have increased the number of breath test refusals.

Ann McKenzie, lab supervisor for the Health Department, said that in 2003 there were 242 people suspected of drunken driving in Wayne County who refused to take an Intoxilyzer test. The county has a 28 percent refusal rate, the highest in the state.

The Health Department was asked to participate in the study by providing phlebotomy services since the staff has been trained to draw blood. Mrs. McKenzie said the grant pays the department a stipend for being on call and responding at 2 a.m., if needed.

"The goal is to test people for blood alcohol levels so prosecution is effective," she said.

The project is expected to reduce the number of refusals so that offenders can no longer avoid the penalties, and to help identify problem drunks who need help. Health Department officials say a similar project was begun in Cherokee County, with the number of refusals reduced by 50 percent within a year of being implemented.

In December, 2004, Health Department employees began drawing blood from people suspected of drunken driving who refused an Intoxilyzer test. The machine used to measure blood alcohol concentration tests breath samples provided when the person blows into it through a tube.

When a person refuses the test, the police department applies for a search warrant for the person's blood and then contacts the Health Department. Police can contact the laboratory 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Lab staff then respond to the call within 30 minutes and administer the test.

Each call has gone smoothly, say Mrs. McKenzie and Major Mike Hopper, a member of the Goldsboro police department.

Even without the procedure, a person who refuses to take the Intoxilyzer test might still be charged with driving while impaired. Another penalty is a one-year suspension of the person's driving license by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

"Although many of these cases are proven in court through the officer's observations of the defendant, this procedure increases the likelihood of conviction by providing evidence of the blood-alcohol concentration," District Attorney Branny Vickory said.

He said the procedure of obtaining a search warrant after the refusal of the test has been approved by the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

"We believe that this procedure will assist in the prosecution of DWI cases, particularly those of repeat offenders, who often refuse the Intoxilyzer examination," he said.

The district attorney's office has already noticed a reduction in the number of breath test refusals since the project was implement, officials say. The Governor's Highway Safety Office expects to expand the effort statewide by next year.