DWI penalty overhaul in NJ: Shorter license suspensions, more ignition locks?
Though an earlier version of the plan was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, lawmakers have advanced a proposal to require all people convicted to drunk driving to have ignition interlocks in their cars but cutting down how long their licenses are suspended.
Repeat offenders, and first-time offenders who had blood alcohol content levels of 0.15 or higher, already have to get ignition interlock devices. The plan endorsed Thursday by the Assembly Judiciary Committee would expand that mandate to all first-time offenders.
“It does give the public the sense of security that there is an interlock device in their vehicle and that if they are drunk for whatever reason and they blow into it, their car won’t start,” said Assemblyman Joseph Lagana, D-Bergen.
“Installing an interlock device as opposed to just a straight-up license suspension, I don’t think that we’re giving anybody a free pass. They still have to go through this whole process. They’re still convicted of this offense. And again, the statistics don’t lie,” Lagana said.
Among those stats: Ignition interlocks reduce repeat DWIs by 70 percent. And some states have seen fatalities reduced in half after interlocks were required for all DWI convictions, according to Steven Benvenisti, an attorney on the national and New Jersey boards for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“The stats nationwide have been compelling and overwhelming, some states seeing a 50 percent reduction in fatalities, others seeing 30 and 40 percent,” Benvenisti said. “But every single state which has made the decision to adopt legislation which makes it a requirement following the first conviction to get this ignition interlock device has immediately seen a dramatic reduction in both crashes and most importantly fatalities.”
A study published two weeks ago in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found state laws requiring interlocks after all drunk-driving offenses were associated with a 7 percent decline in fatal crashes. States that impose them only in some cases, like New Jersey, saw a 2 percent drop.
Benvenisti – who while a student some 30 years ago at The College of New Jersey was nearly killed by a repeat drunk driver – said 28 states impose interlocks in all DWI cases. He said suspensions alone haven’t been effective.
“Mothers Against Drunk Driving has considered this issue very, very seriously and because the data is so compelling, we think it is a wonderful tradeoff because lives immediately start being saved. Crashes immediately start being reduced,” Benvenisti said.
The device would stop vehicles from starting for readings that exceed 0.05, which is lower than the drunk-driving standard of 0.08.
Licenses are currently suspended for three months or seven months, depending on how high the driver’s blood alcohol content registered. The bill Christie conditionally vetoed two years ago would have reduced the license suspension to 10 days. This version reduces it to 30 to 90 days.
"We need penalties that will increase safety on the roads without perpetuating the cycle of despair."
It’s not clear how Christie would receive the current version, which Lagana indicated is still likely to be amended further. But the bill’s sponsors include Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, a Monmouth County Republican who voted against the previous incarnation.
“Sometimes, drivers make a mistake and they drive when they shouldn’t. They lose their license for lengthy periods; they lose jobs because they can’t get to work,” O’Scanlon said. “The downward spiral can lead to depression and more drinking, and family members suffer. We need penalties that will increase safety on the roads without perpetuating the cycle of despair.”
Half to three-quarters of people whose licenses are suspended for drunk driving keep driving anyway, mostly because they need to get to their jobs, according to data cited repeatedly at Thursday’s hearing.
“They have to go to work. Because getting a DWI could be maybe up to a $10,000 event for you, between fines and attorney’s fees. So people are going to have to work, and they’re just going to get in their cars and start driving to work,” Lagana said.
“It gives the arrested person, the defendant, a second chance,” said Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, D-Bergen, who said people convicted of DWI face particularly challenges commuting in areas with limited mass transit.
“This gives them a chance to show that they are serious about the laws and that they recognize that they’ve made a mistake, and the penalty of having to blow into a device to start a car to ensure you’re not under the influence, I think it’s a great tradeoff,” Johnson said.
Drivers would have to pay to have an interlock device installed and pay monthly for monitoring. That money would go to the company, not the state.
“For the driver, it’s less than $2.50 a day, which is less than a gallon of gas today,” said Dan Melega of the Coalition of Ignition Interlock Manufacturers. “You could have an install cost, which could be up to $70. But basically, it’s about on the average about $70 a month” for monitoring.
That monitoring also allows the interlock companies to track if a person isn’t drunk but has been drinking and consistently registers .02 or .03, Lagana said. That information can be relayed to the court.
“So they’re able to even bring the person in and say, ‘We know you’re not technically legally drunk, however, every time you get in the car and blow into it, it’s showing that you’re drinking,’” Lagana said. “We need to bring you back, and we need to essentially drag them before the court and find out whether their license should actually be suspended.”