Interlock

A state law forces most people convicted of a first or second DUI to have sensors installed on their vehicles to keep them from driving while drunk. Vehicle interlock devices require the driver to exhale into the device before the vehicle can be started. If the device detects alcohol at a pre-set level, the vehicle will not start.

Journal Star file photo

Gov. Dave Heineman reminded Nebraskans on Wednesday that the state's system for dealing with drunken drivers is about to change drastically by forcing most people convicted of a DUI to have a device installed on their vehicles that will detect whether they have been drinking.

Heineman appeared with Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk and Beverly Neth, head of the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles, to discuss the law — approved by lawmakers during the 2011 session and set to go into effect Jan. 1. 

It will force most people convicted of first and second DUI to have sensors installed on their vehicles that would keep them from driving while drunk. These so-called vehicle interlock devices require the driver to exhale into the device before the vehicle can be started. If the device detects alcohol at a pre-set level, the vehicle will not start.

"By using the ignition interlock device, offenders can continue to drive to work and go to school, but only if they are driving safe and sober," Heineman said.

The cost varies, but one Lincoln company says it will charge $49 to install a device, $69.95 a month for its use -- though the first month is free -- and $75 to uninstall the device.

The law also creates 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.

The bill creating the law was sponsored by Flood and originally called for scrapping a system Nebraska has used since 1992 to deal with DUI cases -- called administrative license revocations, or ALRs. Under that system, police confiscate the driver's license of anyone arrested for DUI and issue a 30-day temporary license to be used until an ALR hearing can be held before the DMV.

People who believe they have been wrongly accused can ask for an ALR 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 those hearings result in 90-day license suspensions.

People now convicted of first-offense DUI are allowed to drive for the last 60 days of their suspensions if they have interlock devices installed.

But Flood and others say that after ALR hearings are held, pending court cases often drag out for a year or longer, or are plea-bargained to lesser offenses by overburdened prosecutors.

Flood said the ALR system has been manipulated by lawyers, who try to delay or avoid the hearings.

Flood said interlock devices are a better alternative to 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.

"You wait a lifetime for a bus or a taxi in Plainview, Nebraska," Flood said.

Mothers Against Drunk Drivers says as many as 75 percent of drunken drivers whose licenses are suspended continue to drive. And many of those often are drunk.

The Nebraska Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers has said that of 13,000 DUI arrests in Nebraska in 2009, 86 percent resulted in convictions. Interlocks were ordered in just 1,800 arrests.

The new law also:

* 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 will double fines for most drunken-driving convictions and increase penalties for hit-and-run drivers involved in accidents that cause a death or serious injury. The measure also makes it a crime for a repeat drunken driver to drive with as little as 0.02 percent blood-alcohol content. The legal limit is 0.08 percent.

People convicted of fifth-offense DUI would be subject to a two-year minimum prison sentence.

Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at (402) 473-2682 or kohanlon@journalstar.com.
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