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Bill OK'd to increase penalty for wrong-way DUIs

FILE - Rep. Steve Eliason talks at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016.
FILE - Rep. Steve Eliason talks at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A legislative committee voted Friday in favor of a bill that would increase the penalties for driving under the influence if the individual was also driving in the wrong direction on a freeway or controlled-access highway.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said the bill is designed to help combat a rising problem with drunken drivers driving on the wrong side of the freeway.

Under Utah law, a DUI is currently a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. HB83 would raise the classification of DUIs committed while driving on the wrong side of a freeway or controlled-access highway to a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Col. Mike Rapich, superintendent of the Utah Highway Patrol, was present to lend his support to the bill. He said intoxicated wrong-way drivers are very difficult to stop. Often troopers have to use force by hitting the driver's vehicle with a police cruiser, which often threatens the lives of officers, he said.

Increasing the penalty of a DUI while wrong-way driving to a class A misdemeanor makes it "a little bit stronger fence,” he said. "If it doesn’t prevent someone from doing it, at least it will make sure they never do it again.”

Eliason said the problem of wrong-way driving on freeways is bad. He has been in contact with Utah Department of Transportation officials about the benefits of having bright flashing wrong-way signs erected on freeway off-ramps. In Phoenix, he said such signs have resulted in a 40 percent drop in wrong-way driving.

Such a provision, however, is not a part of Eliason's bill, who said UDOT is considering something similar.

The House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee passed the bill with a favorable recommendation. It now goes to the full House for consideration.