DENVER - At the exact moment New Year's revelers were chugging champagne, the penalty for driving home drunk got more severe.
The change in drunken-driving penalties is one of 15 new laws taking effect today after being approved by the state Legislature last year.
Starting today, first-time DUI offenders can lose their licenses for up to nine months. On the third offense, licenses can be suspended for up to two years.
But the law offers an escape for first-time offenders: After one month of the suspension, they can apply for a restricted license to use a car with an ignition interlock device that tests whether the driver has been drinking before it starts the engine. Offenders could get their unrestricted license back if they stay clean for four consecutive months.
A second new law requires auto insurance companies to offer at least $5,000 in medical coverage. Hospitals and first responders have complained that they are often paid late because Colorado switched its insurance system five years ago.
Consumers will be allowed to opt out of the coverage, but it could leave them on the hook for medical payments if they get in a car accident.
"Our concern is that if people choose to opt out - and that's totally their right - they need to have a plan for how to pay for this should it happen," said Cameron Lewis, spokeswoman for the Division of Insurance. "People have no idea how devastating medical costs can be."
Consumers should look at their health-insurance policies to see if they cover costs from an auto accident, Lewis said.
In 2003, Colorado switched from a "no-fault" system, where each driver in an accident was paid by his own insurance company, to a tort system, where the driver at fault pays everything.
Companies don't pay medical bills until they establish which driver was at fault and until all medical treatments are complete, said Bobbie Baca, supervisor of the Division of Insurance's Property and Casualty section.
A study prepared for the governor's office in February revealed that it takes first responders twice as long to get paid as under the no-fault system.
The new law sets aside $5,000 in coverage to be paid directly to first responders and trauma centers, then to other medical providers.