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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Key to reduce drunk driving

All across the country, from coast to coast, thousands of drivers are climbing into their cars, pulling out a small device, and blowing into it.

They have to, or the car won’t start.

Then, once they hit the road, the device may suddenly issue a series of urgent beeps. When it does that, they must pull over when it’s safe to do so and give the device another sample of their breath.

It’s the price they have to pay for having been convicted of drunk driving.

Their state — recognizing that if they can’t drive, they may not be able to work — allows them to continue to do so — but only if they agree to install this “ignition interlock” on their car.

It’s inconvenient, and may even be a bit embarrassing, but they think it’s worth it to continue to use their automobile.

And the devices have proved their worth. According to national figures, repeat offenses dropped by about two-thirds due to interlocks.

Back in 2006, after 13-year-old Melanie Powell was killed by a drunk driver, Massachusetts began requiring ignition interlocks for all repeat drunk drivers.

Now, state lawmakers are considering widening the use of the devices to include first-time offenders. Again, statistics show this can be very effective.

Oregon, Arizona, Louisiana and New Mexico saw their drunk driving deaths drop by more than 30 percent after they passed all-offender interlock laws.

In 2011, 114 people — 34 percent of all highway deaths — were killed by drunk drivers on Massachusetts roads.

“Ignition interlocks are proven effective,” says National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosekind. “Once seen as a sanction for repeat offenders, they’re now part of a comprehensive strategy on eliminating alcohol-impaired driving.

H1278, a bill sponsored by Rep. Michael A. Costello, D-Newburyport, expands the current law to require the use of ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers who blew a .08 Blood Alcohol Content or greater and who wish to drive following conviction. This gives drunk drivers with an interlock the ability to keep their jobs and provide for their family or keep going to school — while at the same time protecting the public.

Currently, there are 20 states — including New York and Connecticut — with laws similar to H1278. “Ignition interlocks are a more effective approach to stopping DWI compared to license revocation alone,” argues MADD National President Jan Withers in support of the bill.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50 to 75 percent of convicted drunk drivers continue to drive on that suspended license, and on average ignition interlocks reduced drunk driving recidivism by some 67 percent when compared to license suspension alone.

As for those who think “there but for the grace of God go I” when reading about the plight of the poor first-time offender being forced to choose between using an interlock and losing their license, national studies have shown again and again that the first-time convicted drunk driver is NOT a first-time offender, but rather someone who consistently drives while impaired but has gotten away with it.

On average, the numbers show, “first-time offenders” have driven drunk an average of 80 times before they are convicted.

Personally, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for those who risk everyone else’s life — or that of their loved ones — by climbing behind the wheel while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

And I think keeping them from doing it again is a worthwhile effort for the good of society as a whole.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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