DUI bill aims to expand use of ignition interlock tool

by Sarah Fay Campbell

A “DUI Reform” bill before the Georgia House of Representatives would require “ignition interlock” devices for any first-time DUI offender with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 or greater, and for anyone who refuses to take a breathalyzer test or field sobriety tests.

House Bill 671 would also do away with the limited driving permits that are currently issued to some convicted of DUI, or those who refuse the tests. Instead of the permits, which allow drivers to only go to places such as work, school, support group meetings and doctor’s appointments, the offenders would get the ignition interlock device.

Offenders would be required to use the devices for a year. Currently, first-time DUI offenders are eligible to get their licenses back after four months if they meet certain criteria, said Coweta Solicitor General Sandy Wisenbaker.

Ignition interlock devices require the driver of a vehicle to blow into the device before the car will start. If the driver has a blood alcohol concentration of 0.025 or greater, the car will not start. The device records the BAC — and takes a photo — every time someone blows into the device.

The legal limit for a DUI is a BAC of 0.08 or greater.

Newnan Police Chief Buster Meadows thinks expanding the use of interlock devices is a good idea.

“I think it is making it a little tougher for them to drink and drive,” he said. “I have no problem with taking away the limited permit.”

Meadows said he couldn’t say exactly how many cases the Newnan Police Department makes for improper use of limited permits but “there have been a good many.” And those are just the ones who get caught. “You don't know how many you don’t catch, and how many DUIs you don’t catch,” he said.

He’s in favor of “anything to curb DUIs.”

According to MADD, in Georgia, 301 people were killed in crashes caused by drunk drivers in 2012.

Wisenbaker said she and the Solicitor Generals Association are in favor of the bill in its current form. “There are studies that show that interlock devices do cut down on recidivism,” she said. Another benefit is for people who have to drive as part of their job. The current permit regulations only allow someone to drive to and from work.

Repeat DUI offenders are already required to use the ignition interlock device, said Barry Martin, Georgia executive director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

National studies have found that 50 to 75 percent of people who have suspended licenses still drive, and 75 percent of suspected licenses are DUI related, Martin said. And many people on limited permits tend to violate them, too. “If you have a driving permit, are you going to drive to Kroger? Probably,” Martin said.

The idea of trading the limited permit, or license suspension, for the interlock device is “rather than trying to punish people and put them in a bad spot — you’ve got to feed your family, pick up your kids… instead of forcing them to choose between violating the terms of their permit or getting food… we’re saying go ahead and put this device on your car and go wherever you want to go,” Martin said. “Just do it sober, so we’re all safe.”

Martin said there will likely be some people who say granting those convicted of DUI the freedom to drive anywhere they want is a less harsh penalty than what is currently on the books.

“The answer is, I guess it depends on what your goal is,” Martin said. “Our goal is to keep people from driving drunk. If the goal is to punish somebody, it’s probably less harsh. If it’s to keep people from driving drunk, this is exactly what we want.”

“Do we want to save lives, or do we want to punish people?” Martin asked. “In this case, we are more interested in saving lives."

Instead of demonizing people who have been convicted of a DUI, “we want to change their attitudes, behaviors and beliefs about driving drunk.”

“It allows people to live their lives, while still safeguarding us, by virtue of having the interlock,” said Wisenbaker.

Monday is “Crossover Day” at the Georgia General Assembly. It’s the 30th legislative day of the 40-day session and is traditionally the day by which a bill must pass either the House or the Senate to have a chance of becoming law.

HB 671 is not on the House calendar for Monday, but many bills will be added to the supplemental calendar Monday morning.

The bill passed out of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee on Tuesday with a unanimous vote.

The bill is the result of a multiyear process, Martin said. “It started with some suggested language from MADD,” he said. Then, the issue was discussed as part of a study committee dealing with transportation and motor vehicle issues.

The bill was introduced last session after crossover day. And it got changed significantly in the Judiciary Committee.

MADD had originally hoped to see the interlock devices for all DUI convictions, regardless of BAC. The organization also wanted to do away with a person’s right to refuse to take the sobriety tests. Currently, anyone who refuses a sobriety test incurs an automatic 12-month license suspension, but can usually get the limited driving permit.

The change to the BAC of 0.15 was “a compromise that the legislature made,” Martin said. “There is a strong feeling that a lot of first-time DUI offenders have made some type of mistake, that they are not hardcore drinkers, they're not the people who are out there doing it every day,” Martin said. “Personally, I think that’s wrong. I think the statistics do not bear them out.”

The ignition interlock devices can be leased from several companies in the state for $2.50 a day. There is also an installation fee, which varies but is less than $100, Martin said. The devices require the driver to pull over every so often on longer trips and blow into the device in order to make sure they are not drinking after the car starts.

HB 671 creates an indigent fund, paid for by interlock vendors, to help poorer offenders afford the devices. According to MADD, judges can currently waive interlock requirements for repeat offenders who are deemed indigent.

HB 671 doesn’t make any changes to the laws regulating drivers under the influence of substances other than alcohol.

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