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Wednesday, April 25, 2007 10:01 pm

Blow to go

Legislation to require breath-alcohol ignition devices stirs controversy

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Untitled Document Picture this: You’ve got floor seats for a sold-out concert, a date with the object of your obsession, a full set of fresh threads, and your hair looking like it just can’t help being perfect. You’re cruising toward St. Louis when suddenly you hear beeps that don’t harmonize with the tasteful tunes on your car stereo.
“What’s that?” asks the hottie in the passenger seat as you start humming and blowing into a box linked to your dashboard. Do you try a lie and say you have a severe form of asthma? Claim your car is an experimental hybrid that operates on gasoline and hot air? Or do you admit that it’s a Breathalyzer, and it’s attached to your car because you caught a ticket for DUI? The only Illinois motorists faced with this dilemma right now are people who have amassed a significant collection of citations and relinquished their driver’s licenses for several months while undergoing evaluation, counseling, and treatment for alcohol addiction. But a bill pending in the Illinois General Assembly would make breath alcohol ignition-interlock devices — or BAIIDs — standard equipment for first offenders.
That means you’d have to pass a Breathalyzer test to turn on your car engine, and take random “rolling retests” while driving. If the bill passes, Illinois will become just the second state in the nation to essentially require BAIIDs for first offenders. The bill is sponsored by Sen. John Cullerton, who got the idea from Chuck Hurley, chief executive officer of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Hurley, fluent in both scientific citations and bumper-sticker-speak, can reel off a list of 17 peer-reviewed studies that prove BAIIDs work. “The main reason why drunk drivers continue to drink and drive is because they can. Interlocks stop that,” Hurley says. “Drive drunk, get a box.”
Cullerton emphasizes that this legislation — Senate Bill 300 — is still a work in progress. “There’s still some implementation issues,” he says.
Since a brief conversation with a BAIID lobbyist — Debra Coffey, “director of judicial services” for Smart Start — I’ve realized that these implementation issues might be where the fun starts. BAIID manufacturers can customize their units to fit state regulations, tinkering with everything from circumvention prevention to consequences for skipping rolling retests.
For example, to ensure that it’s the actual driver (rather than a passenger or a balloon) blowing into the BAIID, these devices can require the test-taker to hum while blowing, or blow and then suck. Although you theoretically could train a friend to do that trick for you, this friend would then have to be willing to ride along and keep taking the random retests. “We hope that common sense kicks in, but it doesn’t always,” Coffey admits. Of course, if the motorist opts to ignore the beeping sound and just keep driving, the BAIID won’t shut off the engine — that would be dangerous. But the devices can be programmed to make the car horn start blaring or the headlights start flashing, so everyone else on the road knows: Hey, there goes a drunken driver! If Cullerton’s bill passes, BAIID licenses — or “blow to go” licenses — would replace the current system of “judicial driving permits,” which are available to first offenders who can prove a need to drive to and from work, school, or medical treatment. It’s a system, Hurley says, that isn’t working.
“The nationwide statistics say that two-thirds of the people who get judicial driving permits continue to drink and drive,” he says. The most recent data Hurley can cite for Illinois are from 2005, when 580 people died in alcohol-related car crashes. That number translates to 43 percent of traffic deaths that year, compared with a national average of 39 percent, according to Hurley. Meanwhile, in New Mexico — the one state that has adopted BAIID laws for first-time offenders — alcohol-related traffic fatalities have declined by 28 percent. To some people, this idea sounds like a sea change that deserves careful consideration. Henry Haupt, deputy press secretary to Secretary of State Jesse White — whose office would be charged with issuing and monitoring these new permits — says he’s keeping an open mind.
“We want everyone’s voice to be heard,” he says. “We want to make sure whatever we do reduces crashes and fatalities.”
Bob Howlett, deputy director of the Illinois Sheriffs Association, is similarly skeptical. “This is a radical change that needs to be discussed a little more in depth before just jumping out there and having everyone purchase a BAIID device,” he says. Marti Belluschi, a gravely injured DUI crash survivor who serves on the board of the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists, says that although AAIM “strongly favors the concept” of the legislation, the group would prefer some requirement for evaluation and counseling before anybody is issued a BAIID. “Before somebody is able to get behind the wheel, they need to be taking action toward changing their behavior and dealing with their problem,” she says. Hurley, however, doesn’t view this question as a chicken-and-egg issue. “This would drive people into the treatment that they need,” he says.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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