WASHINGTON -- An effort to get more states to mandate breath-test ignition devices in the cars of convicted drunk drivers has kicked off a battle between restaurant owners and drunk driving opponents.
The little-known provision, tucked into the House's transportation bill, would offer $25 million per year to states that require the installation of breath-test devices in the vehicles of anyone who is convicted of a DUI. The American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association, is calling foul, arguing the legislation would deny judges at the state level the ability to distinguish between a driver "one sip over the limit" and repeat offenders with a high blood alcohol concentration.
The devices, referred to as "ignition interlock" devices, require drivers to blow into a tube to measure their blood alcohol content and render the vehicle impossible to drive if users register a BAC above the legal limit. Of the $500 million per year to be offered in federal highway safety grants, five percent could go "only to States that have enacted and are enforcing an ignition interlock law, in the ratio that the population of each such state bears to the total population of all such states," according to a draft of the legislation.
"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 ABI spokeswoman Sarah Longwell. "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."
There are currently 15 states that have laws requiring the implementation of breath-test devices in the cars of first-time DUI offenders and would thus be eligible for the grant money, but other cash-strapped states are sure to take note of the federal money being dangled before them.
Longwell also pointed to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showing that the average BAC of a drunk driver involved in a fatal car crash is more than twice the legal limit at 0.19 percent. In 2009, six percent of fatal crashes involved a driver with a BAC between .01 and .07 percent, according to the data.
The House bill, introduced by Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.), also includes language that would leave it to states to decide the exact circumstances under which a repeat offender should be allowed to drive following the installation of an ignition interlock. Each state sets its own limit for BAC, but all currently set the standard at .08.
A bill pending in the Senate features similar language.
Advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving has praised the inclusion of the ignition interlock incentive provision in the transportation bill, calling the interlocks a necessary way to prevent fatalities from drunk driving.
"This is the restaurant industry trying to put profits ahead of public safety," MADD spokesman J.T. Griffin told HuffPost in an interview, adding, "You don't get a DUI for having a beer at a ball game."