Video report by NJTV Correspondent Leah Mishkin; text by Ron Marsico, NJ Spotlight contributor
A “breathalyzer” that’s designed to keep all convicted drunk drivers on the road — as long as they stay sober — is about to become part of New Jersey’s arsenal against intoxicated driving.
New Jersey is the 34th state to require all first-time and repeat drunk-driving offenders to install ignition interlock devices (IIDs) in their vehicles. The concept is simple: Convicted drunk drivers must blow into the cell-phone sized units that can detect the presence of alcohol; if illegal amounts of alcohol are detected, the vehicle engines will not start.
The new law takes effect Dec. 1, superseding the current requirement that IIDs must be installed on first-time offenders’ vehicles only if they registered a 0.15% blood alcohol concentration (BAC) — nearly twice the state’s 0.08% BAC legal limit (0.08 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood). The current law, which also requires repeat offenders to install IIDs, took effect in 2010.
“We’re going to see many lives saved because of this modification in the law,’’ said Steven Benvenisti, who chairs the New Jersey advisory board for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Benvenisti survived a severe brain injury caused by a drunk driver in a Florida accident when he was on a 1989 spring break trip with college friends. As an attorney, he now specializes in cases seeking restitution for victims and families of those harmed by intoxicated drivers.
“It was just a long overdue modification,’’ said Benvenisti of the new IID law, expressing disappointment that then-Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed a similar measure in March 2015.
Safe-driving organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) wholeheartedly support ignition-interlock device laws for all convicted drunk drivers. They cite statistics that show nationwide 75% of offenders with suspended licenses get behind the wheel anyway — often after drinking. Mandating IIDs for all offenders — including every first-time violator — provides the public greater protection on the road, while allowing offenders to drive sooner by shortening license suspensions.
“Expanding the use of ignition interlock devices is just common sense,’’ Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement upon signing the measure this summer. “We must deter drunk driving without negatively impacting individuals’ ability to take care of themselves or their families.’’
Proponents of New Jersey’s new IID law see a key difference between the IID breath testers and issues involving breath testers that helped lead to drunk-driving convictions in the first place.
Reported problems with the programming, maintenance and calibration of many portable breath testers operated roadside by police to test suspected drunk drivers have invalidated thousands of subsequent convictions in New Jersey and other states in recent years.
“This is really more about changing people’s behaviors …This is essentially an agreement by the driver to have that (IID device installed),’’ said state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a sponsor of the IID bill (S-824) that officially becomes law on Sunday. “It’s not up to a challenge.’’
Awareness of the dangers and costs of driving and drinking has grown across the United States over the past generation.
Take a cab
Safety groups have lobbied hard for greater recognition of the awful impact on victims, increased safety awareness, harsher penalties and tougher enforcement. They also have encouraged those drinking to use taxis and ride services like Lyft and Uber instead of driving themselves, as well as advocated for continued technological advances to help keep impaired drivers off roads.
States in recent decades also have reduced the legal blood alcohol concentration to 0.08% from 0.10%, with safety proponents pushing to further lower it to 0.05% — the level now in Utah and many European countries.
Nevertheless, America’s death toll in alcohol-related crashes remains staggering, despite dropping 18% nationally since 2000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Nationally in 2017, 10,874 people — one individual every 49 minutes — were killed in alcohol-related crashes, which represented 29% of all deaths in vehicular accidents, according to the NHTSA. In New Jersey that year, 125 people died in alcohol-related accidents — 20% of all deaths in vehicular crashes, the administration’s data shows.
Despite the stigma and financial cost of having ignition interlock devices in their vehicles, drunk-driving offenders can normalize their lives faster. License suspensions are significantly shortened — once an IID is wired into their vehicle’s ignition systems — and offenders can resume driving without additional restrictions.
For example, under the new law a first-time offender who registered a blood alcohol concentration between 0.08% and 0.10% would only have their licenses suspended for 30 days. They would then be allowed to drive with an IID during the subsequent three- to six-month period when their licenses would otherwise have been suspended.
A proven way to curb drunk driving
“It’s one of the proven laws that will curb drunk driving,’’ said Tara Gill, a senior director with Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of insurance industry, health and safety groups.
Gill said the importance of ensuring all first-time offenders are required to install IIDs is magnified by estimates they have driven drunk roughly 80 times before their first arrest. Her group cites an estimate that IIDs prevent thousands of impaired drivers from starting their cars in New Jersey alone each year.
“The problem with suspension alone is people will just drive on a suspended license,’’ added Gill.
An array of companies offer IIDs, which directly connect into a vehicle’s wiring and ignition system. The devices must be installed by professionals at a cost of between $70 and $150, with monthly leasing/maintenance costs ranging from $60 to $80, according to industry estimates.
Many IIDs are equipped with cameras to photograph the user, preventing a violator’s sober friends or family members from taking the breath test. The breath tester analyzes a puff of air from the driver each time they get into their vehicle and only lets the car start if measurements are within prescribed alcohol limits.
To further prevent tampering, IIDs are programmed to require random tests while the vehicle is in motion by puffing into the breath tester. Should alcohol then be detected, the vehicle will not shut off immediately for safety reasons but an alarm will warn the driver that he or she must soon pull over and stop.
Despite some opposition from defense attorneys, there is widespread support for ignition interlock devices around the nation, prompting some unusual alliances. Earlier this year, for example, the Kentucky Distillers Association joined with MADD to urge Bluegrass State legislators to pass a bill strengthening IID laws.
Drug use, texting, drowsiness
While all 50 states require IIDs for at least some offenders, 16 states have not yet adopted the measure for all violators. Additionally, despite the benefits, IIDs are not a panacea.
They cannot detect marijuana or drug use by drivers. Other key factors, including distracted driving like texting and drowsiness, also play large roles in crashes.
A June 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office also found a troubling trend related to removal of IIDs after the penalty period ends.
The GAO’s review of research showed that IIDs “effectively reduce the rate of re-arrest for driving while intoxicated (DWI) when installed. But once the devices are removed, DWI re-arrest rates return to pre-interlock rates” for individuals who had the devices in their vehicles.
The National Academy of Sciences, in a 2018 report sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, expanded on a major recommendation that all states enact all-offender ignition interlock laws.
“To increase effectiveness, states should consider increased monitoring periods based on the offender’s BAC or past recidivism,” the academy’s report determined. “Evidence shows that a minimum monitoring period for interlock devices of two years is effective for a first offense, and four years is effective for a second offense.”
New Jersey’s law does not go that far.
It will require drivers with BACs between 0.08% and 0.10% to lose their licenses for 30 days and install an IID for three to six months, dependent on the court’s discretion. For drivers with BACs between 0.10% and 0.15%, licenses will be suspended for 45 days and IIDs must be in place for six to 12 months. For those with a BAC of 0.15% and higher, licenses will be forfeited for 90 days and IIDs mandated for 12 to 18 months.
However, to have an IID removed, New Jersey offenders will be mandated to first obtain a certification from the device’s manufacturer that no attempts were made to start the vehicle during the last third of the penalty period with a BAC of 0.08% or higher.
“Compliance-based removal is probably the most powerful part of the law that ensures there won’t be continued violations after the interlock is removed,’’ said Benvenisti, MADD’s New Jersey representative.
For Benvenisti, pushing for the expansion of IID use in New Jersey is part of a personal pledge to work toward reducing drunk driving after he survived a six-month hospitalization, numerous surgeries and protracted recovery 30 years ago.
“As a drunk driving victim, this impacted me in the most profound way because my life almost ended at 21,’’ said Benvenisti, who wrote a book about his near-death experience and regularly speaks to students about the dangers of drinking and driving. “It’s such a preventable crime.’’