Legislation Would Tighten Laws for First-Time Drunk Driving Offenders

A new law would make ignition interlock mandatory instead of discretionary for first-time offenders of drunk driving.

By Michael Hill

“I just want to thank you and thank you on behalf of so many people who have no idea that their lives are going to be saved with this very important piece of legislation,” said Steven Benvenisti.

Another expression of gratitude to state lawmakers from Benvenisti, the vice chair of Mother Against Drunk Driving’s national board, a Teaneck personal injury law firm partner and a survivor of a recklessness 1989 Florida repeat drunk driver.

“When I survived that horrible, horrible experience, I made up in my mind that this cannot happen to other people,” Benvenisti said.

He has come to Trenton more than a half dozen times, encouraging lawmakers to get tougher on drunk driving. He’s a big proponent of the ignition interlock device.

New Jersey requires those who refuse a field sobriety test and, in some cases, those convicted of drunk driving, to have an ignition interlock device installed in their car.

Two years ago, the governor vetoed a bill to mandate the interlock for first-time offenders, saying it also would have cut their mandatory suspensions from three months to 10 days.

“Twenty-eight other states had legislators, plus the District of Columbia, with legislators that produced the bill for a governor to sign. Every single other governor signed it, but Gov. Christie issued a conditional veto. So we had to start all over and that’s why we’re here today,” explained Benvenisti.

A similar bill with some changes is heading to the full Assembly. It would make ignition interlock mandatory, instead of discretionary, for first-time offenders for three to 18 months, depending on their blood alcohol test results, and would mandate the interlock for multiple convictions of drunk driving or refusing the breathalyzer. Benvenisti seems confident it will become law this time.

He said, “Because the data is so strong, it shows that once the law changes in favor of making every convicted drunk driver get this device in their car, that state immediately starts seeing reductions in fatalities and crashes on their roadways.”

AAA hopes the governor supports the bill this time, just based on all the attention he’s given to addiction in January alone.

“He’s put a real focus on addressing the issues of addiction and dangerous behavior. Drunk driving is clearly a dangerous behavior and the best way to keep drunk drivers off our roads is to change their behavior and interlock systems do that. It not only takes drunk drivers off of the road, but it helps them change their behavior in the long run so that they don’t drive drunk behind the wheel when their suspensions are over,” said Cathleen Lewis, director of government and public affairs at AAA Northeast.

The governor has a policy of not commenting on pending legislation. Benvenisti says he’s not looking for words, but deeds to put the brakes on drunk driving in New Jersey.

It sounds like a fight Benvenisti is not willing to give up.

“I can’t give up because if it saves one life then it’s worth fighting,” he said.