The New Jersey Senate has passed legislation that changes the state's drunken driving law by easing penalties for a first offense but introducing technology to keep intoxicated drivers off the road.

Paul Vasarhelyi, ThinkStock
Paul Vasarhelyi, ThinkStock

Right now, anyone convicted of driving while intoxicated automatically loses their driver's license for at least three months, and sometimes a lot longer.

The measure approved Thursday would change that to 10 days for first-time offenders, provided they install an ignition interlocking device in their vehicle that measures blood alcohol levels and does not allow the vehicle to start if the driver is intoxicated.

One of the primary sponsors of the measure, Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Linden), said current drunken driving laws have not been revisited in many, many years.

"This is a recognition that we need to ensure the safety of the public in a more efficient manner, and also give an opportunity to some people that are only first offenders, that may have had no aggravating factors, to perhaps maintain their license with an ignition interlock device in their car," Scutari said.

He said maintaining a driver's license, in many cases, allows the individual to keep his or her job.

According to Scutari, if someone who is convicted of DWI tries to drive someone else's car to get around using the interlock device, there are stiff criminal penalties.

He also said having the device would be voluntary, and if someone agrees to get it, "then they'll pay for the device, and it's approximately $100 a month for the lease of the equipment. They don't buy it, they lease it for the period of time in which the court sentences them to have it in their vehicle."

The bottom line is putting an end to bad decisions behind the wheel.

"We have too many people driving around who have a record of driving while intoxicated who are continuing to do that," Scutari said. "We want to change that behavior. We want to make it clear that we don't want people to drive drunk, but we also want to safeguard the public."

Steven Benvenisti, national vice chairman of the board of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said MADD supports the bill.

"When this type of legislation has become law in other states, drunk driving fatalities in those states are reduced by up to 45 percent," Benvenisti said, "which is absolutely incredible."

He said statistics show half of all drivers who have their licenses suspended because of a DWI conviction keep driving anyway, but in states where interlock laws have been passed, arrest rates have gone down 67 percent.

Benvenisti said an additional goal is to see that lives continue to be saved.

"Ideally, there would be zero drunk driving fatalities," he said, "but until we get to that point, the closest thing to the best answer is imposing ignition interlock devices into the vehicles of people who have been convicted of drunk driving."

In 2012, 168 people died from drunken driving fatalities in New Jersey.

Some states have DWI penalties and less serious Driving Under the Influence (DUI) penalties as well, but New Jersey only has the DWI infraction.

The bill, which passed the full Assembly last year, now goes to Gov. Chris Christie's desk for consideration.

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