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Ignition locks deter DUI, official says

4,000-plus used in Mass. since ’06 laws were passed

By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / January 8, 2010

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More then 4,000 drivers in Massachusetts have been forced to use an ignition interlock device on their cars since tougher drunken driving laws went into effect in 2006, according to state statistics released yesterday for a program that has been called one of the most effective strategies to help curb repeat drunken driving.

“In two years of data, few could argue that it’s not having a sincere deterrent effect and changing lives,’’ said Rachel Kaprielian, registrar of motor vehicles.

The devices, known as IIDs, were part of a more expansive package of tougher measures that became part of Melanie’s Law in 2005. Repeat drunken drivers now face mandatory jail sentences and longer license suspensions.

Under the interlock program, those who have been convicted of a second offense must have the device installed in their cars once they seek to have their licenses reinstated, or if they received a license immediately under a hardship appeal.

Of the hundreds of drivers who have completed the minimum two-year program, only 30 have been arrested and convicted a third time, the statistics show, a recidivism rate of less than 2 percent.

The way the program works is the driver has to breathe into the device whenever starting the car and would have to breathe into the device again every 20 minutes. A person can drive a car only if it has the interlock device. Anyone who breathes into it on behalf of the driver could face penalties.

The driver’s license would have restrictions to notify police of the requirements. The program runs at least two years, but a judge can require a longer sentence.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving has endorsed the program, calling it one of the most effective parts of Melanie’s Law.

While a third of the people arrested for drunken driving each year, or about 18,000, are repeat offenders, the devices have become a new control for law enforcement.

“Whenever you can separate the drinking from the driving, it’s kind of doing the job,’’ said David DeIuliis, a spokesman for MADD’s Massachusetts chapter.

He said supporters are pushing for a measure that would have the devices installed for anyone convicted of a first offense. Nationwide, more than 20 states require devices on the first offense, while other states let judges decide. Three states do not have provisions for ignition devices.

James M. Milligan, a Norwell defense lawyer who handles drunken-driving cases, said the devices have become an integral part of the state’s judicial system. He said defense lawyers continue to question the overall accuracy of the devices, noting that different substances have been known to trigger false readings. He said the devices should be reserved for the most serious of repeat offenders.

But Milligan also said the devices have become an appropriate measure of the justice system, allowing defendants to have their licenses reinstated while assuring they stay sober.

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.