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In a jolting move to curb drunken driving, Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed Tuesday that those convicted of a DWI be required to use a breath-activated ignition system or risk losing their driver's license for at least six months.
Pawlenty said he also wants to lower the level at which enhanced penalties kick in -- from 0.20 percent blood-alcohol level to 0.15 percent.
"If you don't breathe, you don't leave," Pawlenty said at a news conference, flanked by law enforcement officials and advocates of stricter DWI laws.
Offenders would have to pay about $100 a month for the ignition interlock system, which requires drivers to blow into it to start the car and periodically while they're driving. Those with multiple convictions could be required to have the device on the car for years.
Though many praised the governor's initiative, which would expand a statewide pilot program, the proposal in fact highlighted how far Minnesota has lagged in adopting such technology to cut down on drunken driving.
Forty-seven states have some type of ignition interlock law. Nine states, including Illinois and Nebraska, have mandatory ignition interlock provisions for all offenses. By July, Wisconsin will require first-time offenders with a blood-alcohol level higher than .15 percent and all second-time offenders to have the device.
"We're kind of in the middle of the pack," said Steve Simon, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who has made a study of drunken driving laws. "We're one of the highest per capita alcohol consumption states in the country," he said.
Simon said that while Minnesota has a relatively high level of DWI enforcement, "that enforcement is dropping with the crisis in funding of state and local governments."
Pawlenty's proposal would expand a pilot program begun in Hennepin and Beltrami counties in 2006. The program was expanded statewide last year and now has about 600 participants. Hennepin County officials said that of the estimated 100 people who had the devices, none had re-offended.
Lynne Goughler, public policy chair for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Minnesota, who stood alongside Pawlenty, said the move would help "by keeping alcohol out of the act of driving."
'This technology does work'
About 524,000 Minnesotans -- 1 in 10 -- have a DWI conviction on their record. More than 21,000 first-time DWIs were issued in 2008.
Motorists with just one prior DWI offense, according to state Public Safety Department records, account for nearly 20 percent of all alcohol-related traffic fatalities.
State officials said that a person who drives multiple cars would conceivably have to install an ignition interlock for each vehicle.
"This technology does work," said Michael Campion, state public safety commissioner. "This proposal is a strong, smart, comprehensive next step."
Campion said Minnesota is one of five states that requires an alcohol concentration of .20 percent before imposing enhanced penalties.
No ignition system, no license
Responding to recent media reports of a St. Paul Park driver being charged with nearly two dozen drunken driving offenses, Campion conceded that "our current system to deal with [DWI] offenders is not effective enough."
Campion said that under Pawlenty's proposal, first-time offenders who refused the ignition interlock system would lose their licenses for six months to one year, depending on their blood-alcohol level percent.
A second conviction would require the device for two years, while those with three or more convictions would spend at least three years breathing into their cars' ignition systems.
Drivers who agreed to the ignition system, Pawlenty said, would be back behind the wheel "nearly immediately."
Though Pawlenty said the proposal would not increase state costs, Simon said lowering the blood-alcohol content level to .15 so that enhanced administrative penalties could be imposed could lead to more court costs. "It could be fairly stiff," Simon said.
Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said of Pawlenty's program, "it's good that we're all kind of on the same page."
Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, who has voiced concerns about what he considers "Big Brother" initiatives, said that the proposal gave him pause, but that his fear "doesn't go all the way to full strength." He said that as long as the information collected was protected, he could live with it.
"Who won't say they want to crack down on drunk drivers?" Buesgens said.
Staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673