New Jersey Drunken Driver Ignition Lock Bill Advances

June 10, 2009

New Jersey could become the 12th state to require some first-time drunken drivers to prove their sobriety every time they get behind the wheel.

A bill approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee Monday would require first-time drunken drivers with a blood-alcohol level of .15 or higher — nearly twice New Jersey’s .08 limit — to install a lock on their vehicle’s ignition.

The lock would release after the driver blows into the Breathalizer-like device and is deemed sober.

If passed, it would strengthen current state law requiring locks for repeat offenders.

“We need to send a message loud and clear to both habitual and would-be drunk drivers: the party’s over,” said bill sponsor Nelson Albano, D-Cape May Court House, whose son was killed by a repeat drunken driver in 2001. “If you get caught driving drunk, you will face severe penalties and, through the interlocks, will only be able to operate your car when sober.”

The bill is dubbed “Ricci’s Law” after a south Jersey teen Ricci Branca who was run down on his bicycle by a repeat drunken driver three years ago.

Eleven states have passed laws since 2005 requiring the locks for all or some first-time offenders, according to Mindy Lazar, executive director of MADD New Jersey. Eight of the states require the locks for all first-time offenders, regardless of blood alcohol content: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Mexico and Washington.

The vote to forward the legislation for a possible vote by the full Assembly came after nearly an hour of testimony from proponents and those who expressed concerns. A similar version is awaiting consideration in a Senate committee.

Mindy Lazar, executive director of MADD New Jersey, said New Jersey — a state with 19,481 drivers with three or more DUI convictions — “needs to do more to fight drunk driving.”

But, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Princeton, urged colleagues to hold the proposal until its kinks could be worked out.

For example, Gusciora said the current bill would make it advantageous for drivers to refuse a field Breathalyzer test if the result would mean automatic installation of interlocks and refusing the test would not.

Gusciora also raised issue with the cost of the locks — at least $75 per month — in addition to the myriad other fines and surcharges a DUI conviction brings. He said the total penalty — $10,000 over three years — would be too much for some to bear.

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