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Use of ignition locks may grow in Pennsylvania

| Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, 5:18 a.m.

An upcoming state Senate Transportation Committee hearing on whether to include first-time offenders in the ignition interlock program is part of the most important drunken-driving legislation in more than a decade, a representative of Mothers Against Drunk Driving said.

“It's not necessarily because it's a harsher sanction, but it's an effective sanction for a drunk driver,” said Frank Harris, state legislative affairs manager for MADD.

Since 2003, repeat drunken drivers are required to have an interlock device installed on their cars. They blow into the device, which measures their blood-alcohol level and prevents the car from starting if the level is 0.025 percent or higher. The legal limit for driving is 0.08 percent in Pennsylvania, lowered from 0.10 percent in 2003.

Under Senate Bill 1036, sponsored by Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, first-time offenders can choose to accept an interlock device on their vehicle for at least six months to keep their driver's license. First-time offenders can lose their license for 12 to 18 months, depending on the level of alcohol in their bloodstream. The bill's co-sponsors include Sens. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, and Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg.

The interlocks for first-time offenders would be voluntary, and a defendant could simply serve out a license suspension. Supporters of the legislation, however, said that many of those with suspended licenses continue to drive.

“This ensures an individual has the opportunity to redeem himself, to get behind the wheel and be legal. We want the assurance they're not operating under the influence of alcoholic beverages,” said C. Stephen Erni, head of the Pennsylvania DUI Association, which works to reduce DUIs.

He said statistics show that 60 percent of people convicted of driving drunk are driving with suspended licenses.

Erni said about 8,000 repeat offenders have interlocks. He estimated that authorities made nearly 55,000 drunken-driving arrests in 2013, meaning that thousands of first-time offenders would be included in the program if the legislation passes.

“We still want to send a message that driving is a privilege,” Erni said.

Harris said the legislation could be modified to specify that the expansion of testing would include alcohol only, because testing for drug impairment is more expensive. Alcohol interlocks cost drivers $65 to $110 a month, about the cost of two beers a day.

In arguing for interlocks, MADD cites a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that said they reduce repeat drunken-driving offenses by 67 percent. The study said first-time offenders frequently drove while drunk before they were arrested.

A committee hearing on the bill could take place next week, Rafferty's office said Monday.

Bill Vidonic is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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