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Ignition Device Added Tool To Curb Drunken Driving

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(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — For over a year, Zachary Glaros hasn’t been able to start his car without blowing into a tube to prove he’s sober. The device took some getting used to, he said, but with three DWIs on his record, it was better than getting his license cancelled for two years.

“I feel like if I had this on my first or second DWI, I don’t believe I would’ve gotten the next one,” he said. “It really puts you in the mindset of, `You better be sober when you touch your car.”‘

Tougher new sanctions against drunken drivers — including longer license revocation periods for some — could give thousands of offenders the incentive to use ignition interlock devices like the one in Glaros’ car. The device prevents a car from starting if it detects a certain level of alcohol on a driver’s breath. People who opt for the device could have their driving privileges restored immediately.

Proponents say the devices will keep streets safer, give offenders a way to keep driving legally and help change behaviors. Others say they are impractical, expensive and beatable.

Jean Ryan, the impaired driving program coordinator for the Department of Public Safety, said the devices are a smart use of technology to cut down on the number of people who get multiple repeat DWIs.

“Too often, people drive anyway. You take away their license, and they end up driving illegally,” she said. With the device, the driver gets his or her privileges restored, and won’t be able to drive if drinking. “It’s a win for all involved.”

Because of the state government shutdown that began Friday, the Department of Vehicle Services won’t be able to take action on revoking driver’s licenses for now. But the cases will still go through the courts.

To illustrate how the new law would affect some offenders:

Before July 1, if a first-time offender was arrested with a blood-alcohol content of 0.16, he would’ve lost his license for three months. The revocation period included 15 days of no driving, followed by a “limited” license for the rest of the period, which allowed trips to work or court hearings.

Under the new law, that person loses his license for a full year, with no option for a limited license. The driver could, however, get full driving privileges back by using the ignition interlock.

Ryan said that on average, 30,000 drivers are arrested for drunken driving each year, and the device might be a good option for roughly 17,000 people who would likely face the longer license revocation periods.

Also under the new law, roughly 2,800 people — the chronic offenders — must install the device if they ever want to drive again, Ryan said.

The ignition interlocks have been available in Hennepin and Beltrami counties since 2007 and statewide since 2009 under the pilot program. During that time, Ryan said, only four people who got the interlocks have re-offended. More than 1,900 people currently have the device.

Chuck Ramsay, a defense attorney who specializes in drunken driving cases, said the ignition interlock program is a good concept, but has some practical problems.

“How well do these ignition interlock devices actually work?” he said. In addition, he said, before offenders get the device installed, they must get a yearlong nonrevokable insurance policy, as well as pay $680 to get their license back.

Offenders must also pay the installation fee, roughly $100, as well as a monthly service fee, which averages around $100 a month depending on the company they choose. Ryan said if the state determines a person is unable to pay, the company providing the device has to offer it for less money.

She also said the Minnesota program will require cameras, so drivers won’t be able to ask someone else to blow into the machine for them. The device has a built-in “rolling” test, which requires drivers to blow into the tube at random intervals while driving.

About one-third of all traffic deaths in Minnesota each year are caused by impaired driving. In 2010, 131 of the 411 traffic deaths in the state were alcohol-related.

Chris Rice lost her son, 27-year-old Jon Blaskey, to a drunken driver in 2009. The driver, a friend of Blaskey’s, had three DWI convictions on his record before he crashed into a tree north of Grand Rapids, killing Blaskey, his passenger.

Rice said her son’s friend had a provision on his license that said he was not supposed to be drinking, but that didn’t work. She said ignition interlocks sounded like an “excellent idea. … Give it a whirl, it can’t hurt.”

Former state Sen. Steve Murphy, the chief author of the bill that passed last year, said the ignition interlock and longer revocation periods help protect public safety while helping families dealing with alcohol abuse.

“The law puts people back behind the driver’s wheel who have violated our DWI law, but it puts them behind the wheel in that area where we know, and can guarantee other drivers, that this person is not going to be inebriated when they are driving,” said Murphy.

While the cost might be tough for some, he said: “It’s kind of the price they have to pay to prove that you are a responsible citizen.”

The message was not lost on Glaros, who got his third DWI in 2009 a month after turning 21. He knew he was too drunk to drive when he left his home to go to the store, he said. He also had a suspended license.

He said it took him some time to find a vendor and get some bugs worked out, but he’s happy with his device. Now, submitting a breath test is a habit, and a strong reminder that he needs to stay sober. He said he will celebrate a year of sobriety July 12 he hopes to be done with the program in October, and plans to remove the device for money reasons.

“I’m never going to forget my experience with it,” he said.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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