The measure has sparked a contentious debate between groups battling drunken driving and those representing offenders about just how far the long and steady push to stiffen drunken-driving penalties should go in the state.
Such groups as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Washington Regional Alcohol Program say that Virginia’s 274 alcohol-related road deaths and more than 5,500 injuries in 2010 remained unacceptably high despite years of cracking down on drunken driving. Ignition interlock devices, they say, reduce repeat offenses.
But some public defenders and lawyers contend that the devices are too severe a penalty for offenders at the legal blood alcohol limit of 0.08, the court system will be burdened by more cases going to trial and lower-income drivers will be disproportionately affected by the fees.
Virginia’s General Assembly easily passed the ignition interlock bill this session, and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) signed it into law last month.
Virginia’s current law requires only repeat drunken-driving offenders or those convicted with a blood alcohol level of 0.15 or higher to have an ignition interlock device in their car.
The devices work like this: A driver must blow into a blood alcohol device linked to the car’s ignition. If the result is higher than the legal limit, the car will not start. The device also requires random “rolling retests” once the driver is on the road.
“When you still have over 29,000 people arrested for DUI, what we have out there isn’t working,” said Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Area Regional Alcohol Program. “This technology is proven effective and safe. It allows the offender to drive, earn a living and go to his or her son’s baseball game.”
Erickson pointed to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis of 13 studies, which showed that ignition interlock devices reduced drunken-driving recidivism by a median of 67 percent. Some of the studies showed large declines for first-time offenders.
Alcohol played a role in 37 percent of driving deaths in Virginia, according to data from the state’s Department of Transportation.
Fairfax County Public Defender Todd Petit said the new law won’t help the drunken-driving problem and could make things worse.
“I think this is one of those bills you want to believe is good and will help everyone,” Petit said. “It’s going to unfairly impact clients who can’t afford interlock, as opposed to a more wealthy person who can pay for it and continue to drive to work. . . . There’s going to be a portion of the community who are going to choose to drive without licenses.”