New bill could require ignition interlocks for all DWI offenders

By Liz Anderson // Murphy News Service

For Gina Calistro, a proposed bill being debated at the Legislature is personal.

The bill would make drunken driving penalties stricter, which for Calistro, a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Minnesota, would create something positive from her father’s tragic death. 

“If I could change one person’s perspective on it or make some movement forward, then my dad’s legacy is fulfilled,” Calistro said

Calistro’s father died in 2009 from a head-on collision from a drunken driver traveling on Lexington Avenue in Blaine.

Now, new proposed legislation would require that all first-time DWI offenders install an ignition interlock system in their cars.  

MADD representatives told the House Transportation Committee on March 23 about the benefits of mandatory ignition interlocks on all DWI offenders. The group introduced a national report by MADD on how ignition interlocks have stopped 1.77 million drunken drivers since states have started requiring the device.  

Currently, all Minnesota DWI offenders have the choice between a revoked license or an ignition interlock with driving privileges. Specific DWI laws on those choices are outlined on the Department of Public Safety’s website.

The interlock device, about the size of a cell phone, is similar to a Breathalyzer but with a camera attached. It’s installed in the offender’s car by an auto workshop. The offender must blow into the device before the vehicle will start. The device takes a picture to ensure that the driver doesn’t use a surrogate. And the device requires “rolling retests,” prompting drivers to blow randomly into the device while the car is running.

Up to 25 states now require ignition interlock systems on all DWI offenders’ cars before their driving privileges are reinstated.

With MADD’s Campaign to End Drunk Driving and the recent report, Calistro is pushing Minnesota legislators to be the next state to pass the bill.

Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, the bill’s author, unsuccessfully advocated for ignition interlocks in the previous session. She was initially interested in ignition interlocks after hearing that her constituent’s son died after being struck in a crosswalk by a drunken driver in 2010.

“It was very tragic. It was someone who had multiple DWI’s, driving 90 on a 25-to-30 mile-an-hour road. He ran through a light, through a crosswalk, and didn’t stop and hit more people,” Norton said.    

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing and Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center are co-authors.

But this is the first year that the ignition interlock bill has received a hearing in the House, and it comes with some opposition.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, chair of the Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, has co-authored a bill that would make ignition interlocks mandatory only for second-time offenders.

“The goal is to get drunk drivers off the road,” Cornish said in a press release. “We want them to continue being productive in their career by allowing them to drive, but most importantly, we want to ensure public safety.”

In his bill, offenders would have to pay for the device. Norton’s bill would eliminate the fee that offenders must pay to reinstate a revoked license so they could use that money to pay for installation and the monthly interlock fees. Norton said there would also be a fund for people to apply to cover the costs.

Calistro said that MADD Minnesota favors its tougher bill, but added it will support Cornish’s if Norton’s bill can’t pass.

“[Drunken driving] is something we can control; it’s something we can prevent,” Calistro said.  

Device stops 325,875 drunk drivers in Minn.

Approximately 50 to 75 percent of drivers continue to drive with a revoked license, according to the MADD report. The interlock system would drastically reduce that number, and studies have shown that even after the systems are removed, repeat offenses decline by 39 percent, MADD reported.

Of those who had the ignition interlock system, the report states, the devices stopped 325,875 offenders from drunken driving.   

Norton said these numbers could help move the legislation forward this year, unlike previous sessions in which similar bills have failed to get through committees.

Currently, the bill in the House for an all-offender ignition interlock is stalled in Cornish’s committee, with no intended hearing date scheduled.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, and Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, authors of the Senate companion bill, referred the legislation to the Finance Committee last week.  

Maryland recently passed an all-offender ignition interlock bill through both houses, and it is now awaiting the governor’s approval.

Liz Anderson studies journalism at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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