Drivers with two DUIs would have to pass tests in their cars
TALLAHASSEE (AP) -- Chronic drunken drivers wouldn't have to worry about being pulled over and asked to take a breath-alcohol test under a proposed Florida state law.
Before they could hit the road, drivers who have two DUI convictions would have to pass a breath test hooked up to their vehicles' ignition. They'd find it impossible to start their cars with booze on their breath.
"This isn't directed at people who go out to dinner and have a couple glasses of wine," Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, a sponsor of the legislation, said Thursday. "We are talking about people who have a significant drinking problem."
The legislation would require a judge to order the installation of an ignition interlock device following a second drunken driving conviction. The device, about the size of a cell phone, has a plastic mouthpiece on the end and is hooked to a dash-mounted breathalyzer machine.
The device measures the driver's blood-alcohol concentration and is usually calibrated so a car will not start if the breath sample is greater than .02 percent. It's also designed so no one else can breathe into the device to circumvent a true reading.
Another person would be able to drive the offender's car only if the device was set to recognize that individual's breathing patterns.
Lee County sheriff's traffic Sgt. Jerry Cantrell says he is very skeptical about how well the device works.
"I don't want to hear a horror story about a 4-year-old breathing into the thing and then a fatal crash happens," Cantrell said.
"What will prevent the offender from getting into a different car that isn't fitted with the device?" he asked.
Don Crum, the president of the Southwest Florida Chapter of Mother's Against Drunk Driving is also concerned the device will prevent innocent people from driving.
"It punishes the wrong people," Crum said.
Only toughening the existing laws will make a difference in reducing the number of drunk drivers, he said.
A News-Press database shows that 1,808 people were arrested in Lee County in 2000 on drunken driving charges. At least 24 percent of those arrested were repeat offenders.
In 2000, 979 of the 2,999 traffic fatalities in Florida were alcohol related. That is the last full year the Florida Highway Patrol has complete data.
Nationally, more than 16,000 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes in 2000, said Rep. David Simmons, R-Longwood, sponsor of the House version (HB 1057).
The Senate bill (SB 1024) is moving through the committee process while the House version is awaiting floor action.
Hard-core drunken drivers are described by the Canadian-based Traffic Injury Research Foundation as people who frequently drive after consuming large amounts of alcohol and have blood-alcohol concentrations two to three times the legal limit. They are predominantly male.
The bills further toughen existing sanctions by making it a misdemeanor offense to refuse a breathalyzer test. A third conviction would become an automatic felony, permanently stripping offenders of their right to drive a car or boat in Florida. That doesn't happen now until the fourth conviction.
"It will place Florida at the forefront of the nation in stopping drunk drivers," Simmons said.
Gov. Jeb Bush, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch, the nation's largest brewer, are among those supporting the measure, Simmons said.
Similar legislation has stalled in previous sessions. But it did not have the support it has this year, said Burt, who is seeking the GOP nomination for attorney general.
"I'm glad to have the company," he said.
Burt said lawmakers may allow fines -- that often times run up to $1,000 -- to be waived to ensure offenders have the money to pay for the ignition lock devices.
The average cost of installation is about $75 plus a two-year rental charge of roughly $65 per month, said Herb Simpson, president of the foundation in Ottawa, Ont.
The devices have been tried in 42 states, four Canadian provinces, Australia and Sweden with notable results, said Simpson, who claimed a 90 percent success rate on drivers with the device.
Florida judges currently have the option of ordering repeat offenders to use the device and about 150 of the ignition controls are now in use in Florida, Simpson said. He estimated that there would be somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 devices in place if judges were required to use them.
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-- News-Press staff writer Bob Reddy contributed to this report.