Lawmaker, alcohol industry battle over DUI bill

A Democratic assemblyman from Southern California and a restaurant lobbying group are battling over a bill that would require an ignition locking device on cars owned by people convicted of drunk driving. The device measures blood alcohol content. Debate over the bill has heated up after the deaths of Angels baseball pitcher Nick Adenhart and two of his friends who were hit by a drunk driver last week. KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports.

Frank Stoltze: It's called an ignition interlock device. The device prevents a car from starting if the driver's alcohol level is above .08 – the legal limit in California. Beverly Hills area Assemblyman Mike Feuer says requiring the device on the cars of convicted drunk drivers for five months or more achieves two goals.

Assemblyman Mike Feuer: You know that every time the offender gets behind the wheel of the vehicle during that time, they cannot drive while they're inebriated because the machine won't let them do it.

The other purpose is a longer term purpose – once that offender gets in the habit of exhaling into this device and being sober, they are much more likely to continue to drive in a sober way.

Stoltze: A bill sponsored by Feuer would create a pilot project requiring ignition interlock devices in four California counties.

Sarah Longwell is managing director of the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant industry lobbying group with a particular focus on issues involving alcohol consumption.

Sarah Longwell: What we object to is that this bill eliminates the ability for judges to distinguish between somebody who could be one sip over the legal limit versus somebody who has 10 drinks prior to driving.

Under this bill, they would be punished exactly the same in terms of having the interlock required. Now the length of the time the interlock is on is different, but they would both be mandated to have the interlock.

Stoltze: Longwell also argues the interlock devices are expensive – $1,000 to install and $70 a month to maintain. Feuer says it only costs $100 to install. He also says it would cost less for low-income offenders. Darren Kavinoky is a Woodland Hills criminal defense attorney who specializes in drunk driving cases.

Darren Kavinoky: The ignition interlock device I think is an underutilized opportunity to really help shape peoples' behaviors.

Stoltze: He says many people who've had their licenses suspended for drunk driving drive anyway. The device, he says, gives them a chance to at least drive legally.

Kavinoky: If given the opportunity to continue driving but in a way that's going to protect society and hopefully save lives by having an ignition interlock device installed in their car, I think they're actually going to embrace it.

Stoltze: A number of states already require the ignition interlock devices. Assemblyman Feuer says in New Mexico, drunk driving recidivism has declined by more than 60-percent since it mandated that first-time offenders equip their cars with the device. Longwell of the American Beverage Institute says those numbers are inflated, and maintains the devices are unreliable.

Longwell: The technology is incredibly flawed. It can be set off by mouth wash, it can be set off by cigarette smoking, it can be set off by people on the Atkins diet. And so you've got false positive occurring all the time.

Stoltze: Longwell says her group would support a bill that would mandate the car breathalyzers for people convicted of driving with a blood alcohol level of at least 0.18 – more than twice the legal limit. Assemblyman Feuer says that doesn't make sense, and points to a witness at a hearing on the bill this week.

Feuer: One of the witnesses who came to the committee is the mother of a young man who was killed by a drunk driver. That young man was killed by a driver who blood alcohol was .09.

Stoltze: Feuer says drunk driving remains a major problem in California. He says in 2007, police arrested more than 200,000 people for driving drunk. These drivers caused over 37,000 car crashes – which resulted in 23,000 injuries, and nearly 1,000 deaths.

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