Skeptics voiced concerns at a legislative meeting Thursday that social drinkers and first-time offenders will suffer unduly if North Carolina enacts tougher measures against impaired driving – including a proposal to require ignition interlocks for everyone convicted of DWI.
“If they are people that just made a mistake, one drink too many at a social event, perhaps what we need to do is curtail the scope of this bill,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham County Democrat.
Ignition interlocks check the driver’s breath for alcohol before letting the car start. North Carolina now requires interlocks for more than 11,000 drunk drivers who have been convicted of repeat offenses, who refuse to take a blood-alcohol breath test or who blow a .15 – nearly double the .08 limit that legally defines impaired driving.
The Senate Judiciary I Committee debated but did not vote Thursday on Senate Bill 619, which would require interlocks for anyone whose driving privileges are restored after a DWI conviction that involved blowing a .08 or higher. Supporters said the devices save lives by keeping people from driving after they’ve drunk too much.
“When we look at the number of crashes that are taking place across the nation ... we see that 92 percent of the impaired individuals in fatal crashes were first-time offenders,” LaRonda Schenck Scott, state director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, told the committee. “So that first-time offender is just as dangerous as the habitual offender.”
McKissick reckoned that lowering the legal threshold from .15 to .08 would mean court-ordered interlocks for an additional 19,000 drivers a year. He favored a more forgiving compromise of .10 or .11.
He said he also was concerned that some drivers would not be able to afford the required interlock fee – expected to rise to $90 a month from the current $75 – even though the legislation would set up a fund to help indigent drivers cover the cost.
But other committee members showed little sympathy.
“My major concern is getting drunks off the highway and keep them from killing people,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Randolph County Republican. “You can have a concern about a man who can buy his liquor but he can’t pay his monthly (interlock fee). That’s not a concern of mine.”
Sen. Josh Stein, a Wake County Democrat who sponsored the bill along with two Republicans, said the stricter interlock proposal would get drunk drivers off the road and reduce the alcohol-related accidents that claimed 349 lives in the state last year. He said North Carolina should join 26 other states that require interlocks after all DWI convictions.
“The reason it is important is because ignition interlocks work,” Stein said. “It cuts recidivism down by 50 percent. By having fewer people drinking, it saves more lives. ... This is not a new or radical provision.”
Shelby attorney David Teddy, speaking for an organization of trial lawyers, warned that the prospect of an interlock requirement will clog court dockets because more DWI defendants will demand trials rather than plead guilty.
“If you have a mandatory interlock, that’s sort of the scarlet-letter result of a DWI conviction,” Teddy told committee members. “You already have a backlog of trials in DWI court. The backlog is going to increase exponentially, and our system is not equipped to handle it.”
Interlocks are ordered when DWI offenders are granted limited driving privileges while their licenses are revoked, and for one to seven years after their licenses are restored.
The device is like a personal breathalyzer. The driver must blow into a tube before starting the car and again, at random intervals, while driving. If one puff of breath carries a blood-alcohol concentration above the threshold set for the device, the car won’t move.
Scott, the MADD state director, said most social drinkers won’t be ensnared by North Carolina’s DWI laws.
“For a 160-pound man, it takes four beers or four standard drinks in order to get to a .08,” Scott said. “So we’re not speaking about a glass of wine.”