News - Bill would mandate Breathalyzer-type device for first-time DUI offenders

Silicon Valley Mercury News- by Steven Harmon

SACRAMENTO - When Mary Klotzbach first heard that 22-year-old Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed by a drunken-driving suspect last week, she relived overwhelming anger and pain from her own son's death nearly eight years ago. She spent the night weeping, and wrote a poem.

I know the pain

I know the loss

The eternal screams as I toss.

Her son, Matthew, was 22 when he was killed by a drunken driver, and also on the verge of great things, as a midshipman in the U.S. Naval Academy.

As the public policy chairwoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving of California, Klotzbach also became more determined than ever to push for passage of drunken-driving legislation that failed to make it out of the Legislature last year.

"I was so overwhelmed by the news," said Klotzbach, a Walnut Creek nurse who lives in Livermore. "It was so senseless and it could have been prevented."

The driver who killed Adenhart was driving on a suspended license for previous DUI infractions, which would have required him to use an ignition interlocking device under a bill that will be heard today in an Assembly committee.

The bill, AB91, would require those who have been convicted of driving under the influence to install an ignition interlocking device in their car. It's a Breathalyzer-like instrument that automatically locks the ignition if the driver has a blood-alcohol content higher than 0.08 percent.

Under the bill, someone convicted a first time would have to use the device for five months; a second conviction would require 12 months, a third 24 months and so forth up to a three-year period.

Studies show that a five-month period of enforced sobriety teaches first-time offenders to break their habit of getting into a car drunk.

"You want to prevent the repeat offender," Klotzbach said. "If you wait until somebody is a third or fourth offender, they're already steeped in their pattern and it's harder to break."

The American Beverage Institute says the legislation is too hard on first-time "low" blood-alcohol-content offenders, and is flying its managing director in from Washington, D.C., to testify before the committee. The organization says judges should decide whether first-time 0.08 offenders should be forced to pay as much as $1,000 to install the device. The beverage group is asking that mandated interlocking devices should apply to second-time offenders or those with a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 or higher.

"It's more dangerous talking on a cell phone while driving than driving at 0.08," said Sarah Longwell, the managing director of the American Beverage Institute. "Speeding is the No. 1 cause of (automobile) fatalities, yet you're not going to punish somebody going 5 miles an hour over the limit the same as someone driving 40 miles per hour faster."

Until last year, judges had the discretion to order DUI convicts to install the devices, but with no ability to follow up on the order, they typically have not made use of the technology. Under a law that began this year, the Department of Motor Vehicles began administering an interlocking device program, but it applies only to those who have been caught driving on a suspended license from a DUI and who are pulled over and found to have blood-alcohol content of 0.15 percent or higher.

Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, the author of the bill, amended by adding a sliding scale for the poor. And rather than requiring the entire state to institute the program, it would start out as a pilot involving the state's four largest counties -- Alameda, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego -- where most drunken driving crashes occur.

The legislation was already scheduled to go before a committee when Adenhart's death became national news. In 2007, 1,501 people died from crashes caused by drunken drivers.

"Drunken driving has devastating consequences every month, every year for families throughout the state," Feuer said. "Even before this tragedy, the bill was going to have much more momentum than last year. But, every time a horrible tragedy happens, it has the impact of reminding people of how important it is to take every step possible to prevent more tragedies."