TRENTON — New Jersey lawmakers Thursday will take the first step toward requiring all motorists convicted of drunken driving to use a device that prevents their cars from starting if they have alcohol on their breath.

The bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee would beef up the state’s driving-while-intoxicated laws by mandating an ignition locking device — similar to a Breathalyzer — for all first-time offenders.

Right now, the law requires it only for repeat offenders or those who are at nearly twice the legal limit.

“Requiring ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers provides multiple benefits to society (by) teaching offenders to drive sober which helps prevent repeat offenses and in turn saves lives,” said Frank Harris, state legislative affairs manager for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Harris said 2,500 ignition devices were installed in the first two years of New Jersey’s law requiring them for repeat offenders and those with higher blood alcohol limits. If that’s expanded to all DWIs, the figure could double within one year, he said.

“License suspension alone as the only mandatory sanction for an offender carries little consequence as offenders continue to drive on a suspended license,” Harris said. “As a result, offenders are not taught to drive sober and public safety is compromised.”Sixteen states now require ignition interlocks for all convicted drivers and Missouri lawmakers recently passed a bill, said Anna Duerr of MADD.

New Jersey’s current law went into effect at the beginning of 2010 after lawmakers first attempted to pass it more than a decade earlier. It covers repeat offenders and first-time offenders with a blood alcohol level of .15 or higher. New Jersey considers a driver drunk with a .08 blood level.

Drivers with the devices must blow into a tube before they start their car. If alcohol is detected, the vehicle will not start.

Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic), a sponsor of the 2010 law, said he was frustrated that he had to compromise and the law doesn’t cover all offenders. “The bill up now is an attempt to address that,” Whelan said. But John Bowman, a spokesman for the National Motorists Association, said ignition interlocking devices aren’t deterrents to first time offenders because most don’t drive drunk again. He said states should focus their resources on getting the repeat offenders the help they need to prevent drunken driving.

Bowman also said the devices, which can cost a driver hundreds of dollars, are not reliable and can be “quite a financial burden on some folks.” “Our group is certainly against drunk driving. When drunk driving foes cast a really wide net … you’re sort of diluting the resources you’ve got and making it less effective,” Bowman said.  The bill (S1750) would also reduce some of the fines and the license suspension periods. Under current law, those with a blood alcohol level higher than .10 are fined $300 to $500 and lose a driver’s license for seven to 12 months. But under the proposed legislation, the license suspension drops significantly, to 30 to 60 days, and the fine would be $250 to $400.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), a sponsor, said the bill is designed to be less punitive but more effective at getting intoxicated drivers off the road. Offenders often ignore suspended licenses, often out of necessity to keep their jobs, he said.

“I think people are coming to the realization that what we’ve been doing is not working,” said Scutari, who also is a municipal prosecutor in Linden. “It’s much better than what we have.”

In 2010, the latest data available, 102 drunken drivers were involved in fatal crashes in New Jersey.


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