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Expand DUI interlock law soon

Published January 01. 2014 4:00AM

Connecticut has a very effective law that physically prevents convicted drunken drivers from starting their car engines if the alcohol in their blood is above a level that would indicate their intention to drive drunk once again. The law requires convicted DUI offenders to install ignition interlock devices in the cars they own or use. The device includes a tube that the driver must blow into in order to measure his or her alcohol level. If the level is too high, the car won't start.

But the law also has a very big loophole in that it requires only those convicted of drunken driving two or more times to use the devices in their cars. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which proposed the legislation nationwide, wants the Connecticut law fixed and expanded to require its mandatory use after the driver's first arrest.

There's a very good reason for this. Connecticut takes an extremely forgiving stance on first time drunken drivers, possibly in deference to young offenders and their families. It allows first offenders to enter into an alcohol education program that, if successfully completed, results in their record being expunged - unless or until, of course, they drive drunk again.

As the law is now written, first-time offenders don't have to use the ignition interlocks.

MADD would like to see the installation and use of the ignition interlock device to become part of that mandatory alcohol education program for these first-time offenders. This makes sense. The state is cutting these drunk drivers a break by a providing a second sense. It is reasonable to require them to use the interlock devices as an added tool encouraging sober driving.

The devices cost about $75 to install and require the user to pay a monitoring fee of $50 to $75 a month. Once the course is completed and their record is expunged, the devices would be removed.

Thanks to MADD, which, as its name indicates, was founded by parents who lost children in accidents caused by drunken driving, laws requiring the use of ignition interlock devices have been passed in all 50 states and 18 of them, but not Connecticut, have provisions for their use by all drunken drivers.

So why not close the loophole? First, there's a technical problem. This year's General Assembly short session is, in theory, at least, devoted only to budgetary matters, but exceptions have always been the rule for this rule. And we know how efficiently the legislature can move, even in its final hours of existence, to pass all kinds of laws, whether in regular or shortened sessions.

Michael Lawlor, the former legislative leader who is now the governor's undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning, has doubts MADD will be able to change the law this session but he supports the idea. "The only issue is a practical one, whether the state agencies charged with enforcing it have the resources they need to do it properly," Mr. Lawlor told The New Haven Register.

DMV Commissioner Melodie Currey has testified that expanding the use of the interlock would require significant increases in financial and staffing resources but hasn't taken a position on the merits.

Bernard McLoughlin, MADD's state chairman, said he appreciates the cost considerations but suggests, rather sensibly, it appears to us, that the cost should be structured so that the financial burden is placed on the violators, rather than the taxpayers.

"What we're talking about here is saving lives versus saving dollars," said Mr. McLoughlin.

While true enough, such a change may also save dollars if it results in fewer emergency service calls for drunk-driving accidents and lower judicial costs. It makes sense to amend the law, if not in this session, then soon.

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