Nebraska is on pace to see a 20 percent increase in the number of ignition interlock devices issued in DUI cases, thanks to a new law forcing most people convicted of drunken driving to have sensors installed in their vehicles to keep them from starting if a driver has had too much to drink.
The law -- part of a sweeping overhaul of the state's system for dealing with drunken drivers -- also has reduced the number of so-called administrative license revocation hearings in DUI cases by about 90 percent.
"It is just really incredible," said Beverly Neth, head of the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles.
The new law was spearheaded by legislative Speaker Mike Flood of Norfolk. It forces most people convicted of first- and second-offense DUI to have interlock devices installed. Drivers must exhale into the devices before the vehicles can be started. If a device detects alcohol at a pre-set level, the vehicle will not start.
The cost varies, but one Lincoln company says it charges $49 to install a device, $69.95 a month for its use -- with the first month free -- and $75 to uninstall.
“I am cautiously optimistic that we can see an even greater percentage of ignition interlock usage," Neth said. "We are closely monitoring this program to ensure compliance and to identify areas that might be improved to increase usage.”
Flood said the new law means roads are safer.
He originally called for scrapping the administrative license revocation system, which Nebraska has used since 1992. Under it, police confiscate the driver's license of anyone arrested for DUI and issue a 30-day temporary license to be used until a license revocation hearing can be held before the DMV.
People who think they've been wrongly accused can ask for a hearing, at which arresting officers testify and hearing officers evaluate evidence and recommend whether revocations should go into effect or be dismissed. The bulk of the hearings result in 90-day license suspensions.
But Flood and others say that after an administrative license revocation hearing is held, pending court cases often drag out for a year or longer, or are plea-bargained to lesser offenses by overburdened prosecutors.
He said the system has been manipulated by lawyers, who try to delay or avoid the hearings.
Flood said interlock devices are a better alternative than the old system, which essentially forced a lot of people to drive on suspended licenses because much of the state is not served by mass transit.
And the number of administrative license revocation hearings is down because, rather than seek to delay a conviction, people who are arrested now can be convicted and then use the interlock device and continue to drive.
Neth said the state held 5,150 revocation hearings last year. So far this year, there have been fewer than 500. In addition, she said, 471 hearing decisions were appealed to district courts last year. So far this year, eight have been appealed.
"We're saving taxpayers' dollars," Flood said. "We aren't paying overtime to police officers ... to attend a hearing on off-shift hours to deal with an administrative matter."
The new law also created the offense of driving drunk with a child in the vehicle and makes the motor vehicle homicide of an unborn child a distinct crime from DUI.
In addition, the law:
* Provides for 15-day temporary licenses for people arrested for DUI.
* Provides for 90-day suspensions of driving privileges and one-year revocations for offenders who refuse breath-alcohol tests when stopped.
* Provides for no suspension for first-offense DUIs if offenders waive the right to ALRs and apply for interlock devices.
* Provides for a 45-day suspension, rather than a 60-day, for second-offense DUIs and above if an offender waives the right to an ALR and applies for an interlock device.
Lawmakers also passed a bill last session by Omaha Sen. Pete Pirsch that addresses the problem of repeat drunken offenders.
It doubled fines for most drunken-driving convictions and increased penalties for hit-and-run drivers involved in accidents that cause death or serious injury. The measure also made it a crime for repeat drunken drivers to drive with as little as 0.02 percent blood-alcohol content. The legal limit is 0.08 percent.
A person convicted of fifth-offense DUI would be subject to a two-year minimum prison sentence.