Florida Seeks To Curb Drunk Driving With Ignition Lock Bill

By Paul Gaita 05/04/17

Drunk-driving fatalities in Florida increased by nearly 15% between 2014 and 2015.

Image: 
Man blowing into breathalyzer inside car.

As the number of alcohol-impaired deaths climb into the double digits in Florida, the state legislature is attempting to curb this alarming trend with the passage of a bill that would require anyone convicted of driving while under the influence (DUI) to install a device that would prevent them from starting their vehicle if they register a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit.

HB 949 would require first-time DUI offenders to install an ignition interlock mechanism in their vehicles for six months. The device does not allow the vehicle to start if the driver registers a blood-alcohol level beyond .025—slightly less than one-third of the legal limit of .08. The bill has sponsorship from both sides of the political spectrum, but currently faces an uphill battle to reach the floor before the end of the legislative session on May 5.

Current Florida law requires only drivers who register a blood-alcohol level of .15 or higher, or repeat DUI offenders, to install the ignition-interlock mechanism. HB 949 would add first-time offenders to that list; those who successfully pass a period of six months without new charges are eligible to have their criminal records sealed—save for offenders who cause personal injury or property damage.

If HB 949 passes, Florida would be the latest of 28 states and the District of Columbia to adopt such measures for residents; a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that states that implemented all-offender laws cut their alcohol-related traffic deaths by 15%. West Virginia alone saw DUI-related deaths plummet by 50% since implementing the law in 2014.

Such numbers would be welcome news in Florida, where drunk-driving fatalities increased 14.8% between 2014 and 2015—a sizable difference over 3.2% nationally. The figures have raised enough concern in the state legislature to generate sponsorship from Republicans and Democrats alike; the bill's GOP sponsors, Senator David Simmons and Rep. Cory Byrd, have been joined by Democrats like Rep. Emily Slosberg, who said, "This is incredibly important—way more important than some of the things we've been discussing on the floor."

However, the bill still needs to pass through two committee reviews before it can head to the floor for a vote. With the final session slated for the end of the week, legislators like Slosberg admit that its chances for passage "doesn't look promising." But Frank Harris, director of state government affairs for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), says that the importance of the issue should be enough impetus to make the bill a priority.

"This is an opportunity for legislators to do the right thing for their constituents," he said. "Drunk drivers don't discriminate. This affects everyone."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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