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NTSB seeks New Jersey-style mandatory DUI ignition interlock law

The five-member National Transportation Safety Board announced this week that it would like all states to pass DUI laws like the one in New Jersey. That is to say, New Jersey and 16 other states currently have laws requiring convicted DUI offenders -- even first-time drunk drivers -- to install ignition interlock devices on their cars.

The agency noted that drunk driving is responsible for 31 percent of all traffic fatalities in the U.S. (nearly 10,000 annually), and that number hasn't changed much since 1995. The NTSB argues that ignition interlock devices are currently the best solution we have for reducing those deaths.

Ignition interlocks are like a Breathalyzer attached to the ignition of a car. The driver has to breathe into the device, and if the test indicates a blood-alcohol concentration above the programmed level (usually .02 or .04 percent), the car won't start.

The devices are costly to install, and those ordered to have them also have to pay a monthly monitoring fee of between $55 and $100. They can also be quite a hassle when the person ordered to have one is not the owner or the main user of the car. They are not available for motorcycles, and they do not detect the influence of drugs.

So how does New Jersey's DUI law work? A non-accident first DUI offense in New Jersey can result in criminal penalties and a driver's license suspension ranging from three months to a year.

It can also mean a court-ordered ignition interlock device once you get your license back. If your BAC was .15 percent or higher, you'll have to install it during your license suspension and for up to a year afterwards. The time and money spent on interlock monitoring goes up with repeat offenses.

But does it make sense to treat first-time DUI offenders with low blood-alcohol concentrations the same as those who are extremely intoxicated or who have multiple past offenses? A variety of activists and lobbyists think not.

"You don't punish somebody going five miles over the speed limit the same way you do somebody going 50 miles over the speed limit," points out the managing director of the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant industry lobbying group.

First offenders with low levels of alcohol in their systems are often unaware that their BAC is above the legal limit. They are often young people or non-drinkers who just don't know their limits yet.

"This would eliminate people's ability to have a glass of wine with dinner or to have a beer at a ballgame and then drive home."

Source: The Washington Post, "NTSB recommends every state require ignition interlocks for all convicted drunken drivers," Associated Press, Dec. 11, 2012

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