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DUI ignition lock use up sharply in Connecticut

By Greg Smith

Publication: The Day

Published 09/30/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 09/29/2013 11:46 PM
Some say devices create problems; impact still unclear

Norwich - Jacqueline Caron of Norwich has spent months perfecting the proper steps needed to start her car.

On one recent afternoon, the 52-year-old planted herself in the driver's seat, inhaled deeply, pursed her lips and exhaled into a tube while humming a tone reminiscent of a prolonged "whooo."

Convicted of drunken driving in August 2012, the former city councilor was sentenced to 18 months of probation and had her driver's license suspended for 45 days before the ignition interlock device was installed in her car. The device, which looks like a car phone from the 1980s, is wired to the car's ignition and requires a breath sample before the car will start. It will not start if it senses even trace amounts of alcohol.

Caron is among the 2,698 people in the state currently with such a device in their car. Use has tripled in the state since shortly before a 2012 law went into effect requiring first-time DUI offenders to have the device installed if they want to drive.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, citing a national study from Impact DWI Inc., says installation rates have jumped by about 30,000 units a year for the past eight years, to more than 300,000 currently. They also cite a dip nationally in DUI-related fatalities during the same period.

MADD is pushing for the device for all convicted drunken drivers and intends to reintroduce state legislation at the next legislative session, according to MADD Connecticut Executive Director Janice Heggie Margolis.

There were 3,773 convictions for DUI in 2012, which do not include first-time offenders, who essentially get their cases dismissed after completing the pre-trial alcohol education program. There were 1,336 devices installed so far this year, compared to 507 in 2010, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

"Some drivers can't or won't change their behavior. It's the only technology available to us right now that can keep a drunk driver off the road," Margolis said.

The state passed legislation that went into effect in 2012 that requires that the devices be installed after first-time convictions rather than second offenses. While all states currently have some provisions for use of the devices, Connecticut was just the 17th to mandate use for first-time offenders.

While Margolis said it's too early to gauge the impact of the law here in Connecticut, national studies show drops in repeat arrests for drunken drivers.

The increase in vehicles with the device installed has led to an avalanche of violations and extended use of the device by some in Connecticut since many of the violations carry a penalty of a 30-day extension.

The DMV logged 27,099 violations from Jan. 13 through Aug. 1. The vast majority, or 18,625, came from initial start violations, when the device would not start due to a failed test. Failure to initially start a car can be attributed to a number of sources such as mouthwash or inhaler containing alcohol. In some cases, the driver had been drinking the night before and found out that alcohol can stay in the system for a period of time.

For Caron, having the device has been a frustrating and at times unnerving experience. She said she knows she made a mistake and is more than willing to pay the penalty for her lapse in judgment.

But she was supposed to have the device taken out this year. However, with 18 violations logged, Caron said numerous 30-day extensions associated with the penalties will have her blowing into the device until sometime late in 2015. She was among the 5,252 violations for rolling tests. In a rolling test, the machine randomly asks for a retest while on the road, and failure to test records a violation. Another 920 violations were logged for failing a second or subsequent rolling retest, according to the DMV.

Her problem, Caron said, is being able to properly blow into the device with enough breath for the device to read it, because of her asthma. All of her violations have come during the rolling tests, frequently when she was on her way to work.

While the DMV suggests pulling over to take the rolling retest, Caron said that often, she would not have room on the highway to pull over and does not want to attempt to take the test while negotiating traffic - something she said is probably more dangerous than texting. The device, however, does not shut off the engine if a person is driving and records a violation. Instead it gives a signal to stop.

"Texting, using the phone - try this. I'm on I-95 driving and this thing goes off," she said. "I've got one eye on the road … trying to blow into it until I pass."

Caron said she plans to appeal her violations. Along with monthly $80 fees for recalibration of the device, she must also pay for a recalibration after each of the violations.

"Now I feel like I'm being taken advantage of," Caron said of the added fees.

It's adding up, she said. The DMV says the vendors, and not the state, are being paid for the recalibration tests. Sensolock of America, Intoxalock, Safety Diagnostics, Draeger Safety Diagnostics, Smart Start, Alcohol Detection and LifeSafer Inc. all service vehicles in Connecticut. In addition to the recalibration fees, DMV requires a $100 administrative fee when the device is installed.

DMV spokesman Bill Seymour said there are no time extensions handed out for initial start violations since the car was never started or moved. In those cases he said the device did what it was supposed to do - stop a potentially intoxicated driver from getting on the road.

Attorney Ronald Stevens, who handles his share of DUI defendants in the New London judicial district, said Caron's story does not sound unusual.

"I feel the DMV is understaffed and overwhelmed with the people getting violations. These devices are temperamental," he said.

Stevens said he represented one man with 100 violations, a man he said he knew was not drinking.

He said he doesn't think there is any correlation between the number of violations and the number of people who are continuing to drink.

"I'm hopeful as we work through this ... regulations will be better understood. It is a work in progress. I do feel it's a great thing. It allows drivers convicted of DUI to get back on the road, work, earn a living. If you lose your license, you lose your job," Stevens said.

Caron plans an appeal of the violations. In the meantime, she will keep her inhaler and a glass of water and stands ready at a moment's notice to deal with the rolling test.

"They're here to stay," Margolis said. "Within the next five to six years, new cars will have these devices in them. The whole goal here is to eliminate drunk drivers ... and save lives."

g.smith@theday.com

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