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Turn your key and breathe

Published (4/29/2010)
By Mike Cook
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A driver uses the ignition interlock device to start her vehicle.  The vehicle will not start if a driver exceeds a preset breath-alcohol content limit. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)The Department of Public Safety estimates that one of every eight licensed drivers in the state has a DWI on their record; and one of every 18 drivers has two or more.

There were 163 alcohol-related fatalities in Minnesota in 2008, about 36 percent of all traffic fatalities, a percentage that has stayed consistent over the years. That same year, there were 35,736 DWI arrests in Minnesota, with about an equal split between the Twin Cities metropolitan area and Greater Minnesota.

Drunken drivers might be able to get their driving privilege back sooner if they are willing to breathe into a tube.

Sponsored by Rep. Karla Bigham (DFL-Cottage Grove) and Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing), HF3106 makes changes to the state’s DWI laws, such as including felony DWI convictions in other states when determining enhanced DWI penalties in Minnesota, and increasing and restructuring the license revocation period for refusing a chemical test based on number of infractions in a specified number of years.

However, its highlight might be decreasing the no-driving period if the person agrees to use an ignition interlock device. It is an initiative of Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Approved 131-0 by the House April 26, the bill awaits action by the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. Bigham expects a conference committee will be needed to agree on all provisions.

The device is installed in motor vehicles to prevent them from being started if a driver’s breath exceeds a preset breath-alcohol content limit, which would initially be 0.02 percent, but increase to 0.05 percent in 2013. The vehicle will not start if the limit is exceeded. A driver would also have to breathe into the device at certain times once the vehicle is started. If a driver fails a test, the vehicle would shut down. A driver with a BAC of 0.08 or greater is considered legally drunk.

“You get your driving privilege earlier if you use this,” said Cheri Marti, director of the state’s Office of Traffic Safety. Currently, full driving privileges are canceled for between three months and six years for a DWI offense, depending on number of offenses.

Under the plan, a first-time offender would have no driving provisions for 15 days and a three-month revocation of driving privileges (one year if the offender’s blood-alcohol concentration is 0.20 percent or greater). However, full driving privileges would be granted for the remainder of the revocation period after the no-driving period if the offender agrees to the ignition interlock restrictions.

For multiple DWI offenders, the no-license period is increased to 30 days before full driving privileges are reinstated with an interlock ignition device. Time using the ignition interlock is increased by the number of offenses, from one or two years for a second time offender, based on BAC level, up to six years for five or more offenses no matter the BAC level.

It’s a very good tool at reducing repeat drunken drivers, said Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa). “It’s reducing repeat drunk drivers by over 90 percent in the states it’s been used. This allows us … to focus on people’s behavior while they’re in the vehicle.”

“This is one of the most effective tools to keep people from driving while impaired,” said Susan McKinney, who directs the Breath Alcohol Ignition Interlock Device Program in Illinois.

All but three states have some type of ignition interlock law. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about 146,000 ignition interlock devices are in use nationwide.

This is not a new program; rather it is an expansion of pilot programs in Beltrami and Hennepin counties that began in 2007. Last year, the pilot project was expanded statewide, with about 700 participants now taking part. According to Bob Roeglin, a Hennepin County corrections unit supervisor, none of the 100 or so Hennepin County participants has reoffended.

McKinney said about 9,000 people took part in Illinois’ BAIID program last year, and about 1,300 tried, but could not, start their vehicle with a BAC above the state’s prescribed limit of 0.05 percent. “We obviously cannot count those that didn’t even try, but would have if not for the BAIID on their car.”

Officials have little concern that someone else could provide the initial sample to start the vehicle and to do so throughout the ride.

“There is some learning involved in how to blow into that tube properly,” Marti said. “There might be some humming, some short intake with breathing into that tube, so those that are not familiar with breathing into the tube would fail.” Some devices also have a small camera attached.

Bigham said it would cost an offender about $100 monthly for the device and monitoring; $50 for indigent people, as determined using the same standards as public assistance. A judge could not force the state to cover an offender’s cost. “The costs are about one or two beers a day,” McKinney said. “From my experience, if they want to drive they’ll find the money.”

Concerns have been raised throughout the bill’s journey of friends or other family members wanting to drive the vehicle, but cannot because of the ignition interlock device.

“Offenders have said there is a bit of a stigma, but it’s worth it if I get to drive,” Roeglin said.

Other supporters note that a restricted license limits where one can drive, such as only to work or the grocery store, while using ignition interlock gives an offender full driving privileges, thereby being more family friendly.

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