Kentucky Considers Forcing Drunk Drivers to Install Ignition Devices

February 25, 2009

People caught driving drunk in Kentucky just once could be forced to install breath-alcohol monitoring devices in their cars, as the state’s lawmakers consider joining other states, including Alaska, in toughening DUI laws.

House lawmakers are considering proposals aimed at increasing the use of ignition locks, which require people to prove they’re not drunk by blowing into a device before starting their vehicles. Another plan would also decrease the current blood-alcohol level that triggers an aggravating factor in DUI sentencing.

“The problem is we’ve got people that are driving 100 times before they even get caught drinking and driving,” state Rep. Dennis Keene, a Democrat from Wilder, said. “A lot of these people re-offend and this would curtail them from using their car while they’re out drinking and driving. There’s a tremendous call for this.”

Advocates have been pushing for tougher DUI laws across the country. Recently, that push has included widening the use of ignition locks for people with one conviction for driving drunk.

Nationally, states have different levels of use for the breath-monitoring devices. They’re imposed on motorists ranging from people getting driving drunk their first time to hard-core multiple offenders.

This year five states — Alaska, Colorado, Illinois, Nebraska and Washington — began requiring first-time drunken drivers to install the gadgets on their cars. Repeat offenders in South Carolina, meanwhile, were also required to use the devices if they want to keep driving.

Arizona, Louisiana and New Mexico have similar laws on the books.

Kentucky is one of 11 states currently considering such legislation, according to the Washington-based American Beverage Institute, which represents restaurants and retailers.

Kentucky judges have already had the authority to impose the devices — which also require periodic tests while the vehicle is in use — on people who get caught driving drunk more than once.

Keene’s proposal would require it. And for more people.

State Rep. Dennis Horlander, a Democrat from Shively, has proposed requiring motorists caught driving with a blood-alcohol level of .15 — less than twice the legal limit — or who refuse a breathalyzer test to have an ignition lock installed on their vehicles. Horlander is also one of 21 co-sponsors on Keene’s plan.

“I think the guys that are going out here constantly having problems, the repeat offenders, I think this will help a lot with them,” Horlander said.

Keene said his proposal is modeled after the plan Mothers Against Drunk Driving has been pushing nationally.

Angela Criswell, executive director of Kentucky’s chapter of MADD, said requiring the devices would lower the number of people who repeatedly drive drunk. The move would also reduce alcohol related traffic fatalities in the state, Criswell said.

Criswell said that New Mexico — which made ignition interlocks mandatory for repeat offenders in 2003 and all drunk drivers in 2005 — has seen fatal crashes involving alcohol drop 38 percent. Overall, Criswell said, that since 2003 alcohol-involved crashes in New Mexico are down 31 percent.

“We want to see its maximum usage on all convicted drunk drivers,” Criswell said.

But not everyone supports the idea.

Sarah Longwell, managing director of American Beverage Institute, said the legislation does not take into account a motorist’s level of intoxication.

The legal blood-alcohol concentration in Kentucky is 0.08 or higher. Someone who has just barely exceeded the limit should not punished as severely as someone who’s far more drunk, Longwell said.

Instead, the ABI supports giving judges discretion when dealing with first-time offenders, she said. Mandatory interlocks should also be required on people with blood alcohol concentrations above .15 and repeat offenders, Longwell said.

“For people who repeatedly flout the law, these interlocks are an excellent way to make sure that those people don’t put us at risk on the highway,” Longwell said. “But expanding them to a low BAC, first-time offender goes too far.”

Nevertheless, Keene said doesn’t believe there should be any mercy for people who drive while intoxicated and risk hurting others. Keene said his daughter suffered a serious foot injury in a crash nearly six years ago that involved a drunk driver.

“It’s not asking a lot,” Keene said. “They’ve made a mistake and the public needs to be protected.”

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