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Md., Va. consider ignition breathalyzers for first offense

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

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.

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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."

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