By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; B01
The movement to rid the roads of drunk drivers is nearing a watershed as states increasingly mandate the use of ignition breathalyzers for first-time offenders.
The political will to require their use will be tested this week in Richmond and in Annapolis, when lawmakers consider following the lead of 12 other states where a first conviction results in mandatory use. Ten other states are debating whether to take the same step.
The proposed laws face fierce opposition from the American Beverage Institute. The restaurant trade association supports requiring the devices for repeat offenders and those judged to be heavy drinkers but argues that a judge should be free to decide for first-time offenders with readings just over the legal limit.
Congress is also considering whether it should push states to mandate the breathalyzers for first-time offenders by withholding federal highway funds.
The breathalyzers, called ignition interlock devices, are not new, but the technology has grown more sophisticated. They won't let the engine start until the driver successfully breathes into a device, which looks similar to a TV remote control.
Ignition interlocks are seen by advocates as the most effective tool to come along since the campaign against drunken driving began 30 years ago.
"Punishment doesn't work," said Maryland state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), lead sponsor of the bill in Annapolis. "That's why we have such a high recidivism rate."
Federal data compiled two years ago showed that 25,120 Maryland drivers had three or more drunken-driving convictions, almost 4,000 had five or more and nearly 70 had more than 10. In the District, 34 drivers had more than three convictions. No data were available from Virginia.
The push to require interlocks for first-time offenders is a clear-cut imperative for Raskin: "If you're opposed to this bill, it's just immoral."
He and other advocates contend that someone who gets caught driving drunk almost certainly has escaped detection many times.
"First-time offenders probably are chronic offenders," said Lon Anderson of AAA Mid-Atlantic, which backs the idea.
Maryland Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery) said opposition would come from those in "the alcohol beverage industry, who think this is going to hurt their business."
Indeed, they do. The ABI says that requiring first-time offenders to use the devices will inhibit restaurant patrons from having a second glass of wine with dinner or a beer at a ballgame.
"We don't think that they should be punished to the same degree as somebody who has 10 drinks and then drives," said Sarah Longwell, ABI's managing director. "There's nobody who thinks it's okay to drive drunk, but a judge should have discretion."
She points out that a driver ticketed for going 30 mph over the speed limit is punished more severely than one going 5 mph above the limit.
Although the ABI opposes mandating interlocks for first-time offenders, Longwell said research supports the need to require their long-term use for "hard-core" repeat offenders and those caught well over the legal limit of a 0.08 blood alcohol level.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said last year that studies suggest interlocks "may be necessary as a long-term or permanent condition of driving for repeat offenders."
Longwell, who plans to testify this week at legislative hearings in Maryland and Virginia, said initial support for first-time offender bills tends to wane after lawmakers hear the other side of the argument.
"We're going another notch down the slippery slope," she said. "They are going to push until there is one installed in every car and it's set on 0.00. It's a backdoor approach to Prohibition that will shift the entire way we socialize."
Installing the next generation of interlocks in all cars has been discussed by advocates in interviews. A report released last year by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that almost two-thirds of those surveyed supported universal installation, but more than half of people who drive to work said they didn't want one in their next car.
Drunken-driving fatalities dropped dramatically in the first 15 years after a national movement was launched in the early 1980s. After 1997, the number hit a plateau around 13,000, until the recession reduced the overall amount of miles traveled and prompted a drop.
"Mothers Against Drunk Driving came on to the scene in the early '80s and eliminated this idea that it was okay to drive drunk," Longwell said. "Now it's been narrowed down to a much smaller group of hard-core alcoholics who don't respond to public opinion."
From the start of the campaign to curb drunken driving, success has hinged on public opinion creating political momentum for change.
"Drunk driving in 1980 was a perfectly normal behavior. That was how people got home," said Chuck Hurley, chief executive of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "There's no evidence whatever that responsible drinking campaigns worked."
Said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: "When MADD came along, they changed that by showing the faces [of victims]. It changed the culture of how people saw drunk driving."
The faces of the victims were again on display when MADD rallied in front of the Maryland General Assembly on Feb. 24 and the mother of an 18-year-old killed by a drunk driver shared her grief. And those who mourn the victims will be in the audience when hearings are held Wednesday in Richmond and Annapolis.
Meanwhile, tucked in one version of a proposed $500 billion, six-year federal transportation reauthorization bill is a provision requiring states to mandate ignition interlocks for first-time offenders.
"We expect that to be included in the [final] bill," said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. "If both the Senate and House go Republican, it's possible that won't be included, but in all likelihood it will."