Interlock ignition devices have helped reduce drunk driving in Massachusetts since 2006 and all convicted drunk drivers should be required to use the devices, lawmakers, activists and police officials said Thursday.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving officials joined Sen. Robert Hedlund (R-Weymouth) at the capitol to press for the bill’s passage, saying the policy is in place and helping to reduce drunk driving and alcohol-related fatalities in 15 other states, including Connecticut and New York.
Bill supporters said a 2006 law requiring repeat drunk drivers to install the breath test ignition devices, but noted studies show people who drive drunk may do so 80 times before they are caught.
“There’s little sense in waiting for a subsequent event to put forth technology we have right now,” said Northborough Police Chief Mark Leahy, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.
According to MADD, more than 16,000 people are arrested in Massachusetts in an average year for driving while above the illegal blood alcohol content level of .08. Among the 3,786 repeat offenders who have completed interlock programs, only 85 have reoffended, according to MADD. The bill would require first-time offenders to have a device installed on their vehicle for at least six months after their license is reinstated.
Bill supporters claimed they face an “uphill battle” marked by opposition from trial attorneys, and Hedlund said he hoped to hear soon from district attorneys about whether they will support the bill.
Anti-drunk-driving activist Ron Bersani said there are 4,900 interlock devices installed in Massachusetts and predicted the bill’s passage would save lives, including the lives of drunk drivers.
Bersani also called for increased pressure on judges to stop allowing repeat offenders to plead guilty to lesser offenses and to continue drunk driving cases without findings.
The bill (S 1746) is pending before the Transportation Committee, which held a public hearing on it in June.
Committee co-chair Sen. Thomas McGee (D-Lynn) told the News Service after the press conference that he has not taken a position on the bill. Asked when the panel might vote on it, McGee said he planned to meet with co-chair William Straus soon to go over bills before the committee.
McGee said he’s been focused lately on the state’s transportation infrastructure “crisis” and financing shortcomings.
Hedlund was the target of some criticism at the press conference over his Senate-approved amendment to a casino bill that would allow free or discounted drinks to return to Massachusetts. Hedlund and other senators who supported the amendment said it would keep a level playing field for bars and restaurants with casinos, which are allowed to offer free drinks to patrons under bills being negotiated by a six-member conference committee.
“I don’t want to get into that,” Hedlund told Erin Brenton of Kingston after she interrupted the press conference and publicly pressed him on why he had not spoken to her father, Charles Woods, who Brenton later said had worked for MADD’s Plymouth chapter and helped pass the law banning Happy Hour in Massachusetts.
“He should have never done this,” Brenton said after the press conference, referring to Hedlund’s amendment.
Hedlund told Brenton during the press conference he would discuss the issue with her after the event and didn’t want to take attention away from the ignition interlock proposal. He also said he planned to meet with anti-drunk-driving advocates today about his casino bill amendment.