By Jon Craig
Saying far too many people continue to drive while drunk, Congresswoman Nita Lowey introduced federal legislation this week requiring special ignition devices be installed in cars to prevent repeat DWI offenses.
“The time is now to make sure this is the law of the land,” Lowey said. “In my mind, driving drunk once is one time too many.”
Lowey, a Democrat from Westchester, noted that 10,322 people died nationwide in 2012 as a result of drunk driving, or one-third of all traffic fatalities.
Lowey’s legislation would require key-lock devices be installed in a convicted drunk driver’s car for six months. Any states not complying with the federal mandate by October 1 would face a reduction in federal transportation money.
During a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Lowey’s bill was praised by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) National President Jan Withers and Rockland County Sheriff Louis Falco.
The proposed federal law is named “Alisa’s Act,” after Withers 15-year-old daughter, Alisa Joy, who was killed by an underage drunk driver in 1992. “I continue to miss her every day,” said Withers, who noted that her daughter would have turned 38 on Monday.
The proposed law would require anyone convicted of drunk driving to use an “interlock ignition” device on their cars. The device requires any convicted drunk driver to blow into it before the car can be started. Anyone who is considered legally drunk would not be able to start the car.
Lowey said drunk driving accidents and related costs total $132 billion nationwide each year including $2.4 billion in New York State.
Delaware recently became the 24th state to pass legislation requiring interlock devices. “Still, 26 states are not doing all they can,” Withers said.
At least half of those convicted of drunk driving continue to drive with suspended licenses, according to MADD. A court-mandated interlock ignition device allows someone convicted of drunk driving to keep their license, remain employed and “ensures they are driving sober,” Withers said.
“MADD thanks Congresswoman Lowey for her leadership to help eliminate drunk driving,” Withers said. “It’s time for all states to pass this lifesaving law.”
In 2010, the New York State Legislature unanimously passed a law requiring judges to include ignition interlock devices as part of their DWI sentencing guidelines. “Leandra’s Law” increased the number of interlock installations from 2,500 when New York’s law first went into effect to 6,870 last July.
Withers said states that have adopted their own laws mandating ignition devices have seen their drunk driving deaths drop by 33 percent to 43 percent annually. Oregon and Arizona have reported the greatest success to date using interlock devices.
MADD’s president said her home state of Maryland as well as Texas lag behind other states in adopting laws that crack down on repeat drunk drivers. J.T. Griffin, MADD’s chief government affairs officer, said Ohio and Florida also have lousy track records of keeping drunk drivers off the road.
Lowey said she intends to seek bipartisan support for the bill’s passage from House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, “and work hard to get as many co-sponsors as possible . . . We just have to do the right thing.”
In 2000, Lowey successfully passed legislation requiring states to enact a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) level of .08 as a condition of receiving federal transportation money. The law prompted all 50 states to pass BAC laws.
Some state legislators complain about the cost of installing interlock devices or of subsidizing low-income drivers who can’t afford them.
Withers argued the devices cost defendants about $3 daily, which also allows them to remain employed if they need a car for work.
Founded by another mother whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver, MADD is the nation’s largest non-profit group working to toughen DWI laws and reduce underage drinking.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study that found one in 10 deaths among working-age adults between 2006 and 2010 was due to excessive drinking.
The CDC has found ignition interlocks reduce DWI recidivism by 67 percent. MADD said more than 300,000 interlock devices have been installed nationwide.