Can a new Pa. law reduce repeat drunken-driving offenses?

    In their efforts to cater to everyone’s requirements, authors of changes to Pennsylvania’s penalties for first-time DUI offenders seem to please no one.

    Under current law, only repeat offenders are required to have an ignition interlock — a device that requires drivers to pass a breath test before they can start the car — installed on their vehicles.

    The proposed changes would extend the interlock requirement to almost everyone, but not in the way that Frank Harris would like.

    It might seem counterintuitive that Harris, the state legislative affairs manager for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, would rather see those convicted of drunken driving back behind the wheel with an interlock than serve a suspension. However, Harris says the problem with suspensions is that people continue to drive without a license.

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    “Ignition interlocks were proven to reduce repeat drunk-driving offenses by 67 percent,” he noted.

    The first iteration of the legislation would have had drivers start on interlocks right away, but state legislators raised concerns that this let offenders off too easy.

    However, the second, heavily revised version that made it out of the Senate Transportation Committee last week calls for drivers to serve out half their suspension before they have the option to get an interlock and start driving again.

    Making changed behavior stick

    The 67 percent reduction cited by Harris comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which also found that advantage disappeared once interlocks are removed. People then resumed driving while intoxicated at about the same rate as control groups.

    A second measure in the Pennsylvania legislation is designed to make the changed behavior stick.

    It requires that drivers not fail a breath test on their interlock for two months before they can have the device removed, even if they’ve completed the time designated in their sentence.

    State Sen. John Rafferty (R-Montgomery) has sponsored the legislation. His office couldn’t provide research on the effectiveness of compliance tests in making a lasting impression, but the theory is that this trains people to only try driving when they’re sober.

    Costs to first-time offenders

    Mike Sherman, vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Association for Drunk Driving Defense Attorneys, is a skeptic. Because interlock devices are vulnerable to false positives, he said, that could mean an inappropriate sentencing extension. And, he argued, most first-time offenders are unlikely to repeat their mistake.

    “When you put an ignition interlock device in that vehicle, when he has to have his boss in his car, when he has to have clients in his car, he’s not going to be able to do that,” said Sherman. “He may lose his job.”

    The cost of renting the devices, about $2 a day, falls to drivers. Elsewhere, Washington State created a fund to pay for the devices for indigent drivers. That’s not a part of the current plan in Pennsylvania.

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