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The battle resumes

Mar 4, 2012 By Steven R. Peck

Virtually every year in the Wyoming Legislature there appears a bill or bills to demonstrate again our state's deeply conflicted positions on traffic safety.

This year's version of the conflict began a few days ago with the introduction of a bill that would permit the speed limit in Wyoming to be raised to 80 mph on Interstates 80, 90 and 25.

Then barely 48 hours later, legislators agreed to an amendment on a different bill that would strip $30 million from highway funding.

The incongruity of these simultaneous actions is apparent enough from the outside looking in, but that's been a characteristic of the Legislature for a long time now.

Recall the battles fought over what the legal standard for intoxication ought to be. What now stands at .08 blood-alcohol content was .12 not so long ago, and it was lowered only incrementally and not without a fight.

Similarly, Wyoming lawmakers went to legislative war time and time again on seatbelt laws, portraying it not so much as a debate over safety but one of government interference. That conflict has some meat to it, at least, but similar philosophical arguments have been applied to drunk driving laws.

At what level of intoxication is it permissible to drive? Should drivers be allowed to drink while they drive, so long as they don't get drunk?

Should an open container of alcohol be permitted in a moving automobile? Should a drive-through liquor store be able to sell a mixed drink or cup of beer to a driver?

Each of these has been the subject of intense disagreement in the Capitol through the years.

Want more? Should school buses have seatbelts? Should motorcycle riders wear helmets? Should there be more than a token penalty for speeding?

Should the use of cellular telephones be permitted for someone driving a car? Should a driver be allowed to send and receive a text message while operating a vehicle? What constitutes reckless driving?

This year we can add a third ingredient to the recurring highway safety struggle. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would stiffen the penalties for repeated DUI offenders. There will, no doubt, be strong disagreement.

Several times in years past, our newspaper has called publicly for the formation of a blue-ribbon panel of concerned citizens to recommend a comprehensive highway safety policy for the state that could assist legislators when they are confronted with the prospect of raising the speed limit to unprecedented highs while also slashing funds that might be used to build safe roads or maintain existing ones.

That still sounds like a good idea from this vantage point, but the recommendation has gone nowhere. So here's an easier one: If we're going to legalize 80 mph driving at certain times on certain roads, let's commit the state financially to making sure those roads are the best they can be. An 80 mph interaction with a pothole is not a combination we ought to hasten through legislation.

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