House transportation bill expected to go after drunken driving

A bill to be introduced Tuesday that provides for the long-term reauthorization of federal transportation programs is also expected to include language that would offer states millions of dollars in incentives for imposing tough penalties on first-time drunken drivers.

A draft of Title V of the bill would authorize nearly $500 million per year in highway safety grants to states, 5 percent of which — roughly $25 million — would be given to states that require the installation of so-called ignition interlock devices in the cars of first-time DUI offenders.

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These devices require drivers to blow into a tube to measure blood alcohol content (BAC), and the drivers car will not start if the device measures a certain level of alcohol in the blood. Today, 15 states have laws requiring the installation of these devices in the cars of first-time offenders, and thus would be eligible for the grant money.

The American Beverage Institute (ABI) today argued that the incentives in the bill would not cover the costs of implementing rules installing interlock devices in the cars of first-time DUI offenders.

"Unfortunately, bribing cash-strapped states with $25 million worth of incentives to adopt a low-BAC, first-time offender interlock mandate is going to hurt states financially more than it will help them," said Sarah Longwell of the ABI. The money allotted to states that adopt this one-size-fits-all mandate won't cover the many millions it costs to actually enforce the mandate due to increased monitoring and enforcement."

ABI has opposed the use of interlock devices for first time offenders unless the drivers in question are found to have high blood alcohol content, and said the bill should focus on requiring interlock devices only in those cases or for repeat offenders.

The bill would also formally clarify penalties for repeat offenders. Under current law, states can either revoke a drivers license for a year or require the installation of an ignition interlock for a year, and let the offender drive to work, school and/or for treatment.

According to an unofficial draft of the bill, that language would change slightly via Section 1116, so states can determine the exact conditions under which a repeat offender can drive using the ignition interlock.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) is expected to introduce the bill at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

— This story was updated at 2:41 p.m. to add reaction from the American Beverage Institute.