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In an effort to catch up with the rest of the country, the Minnesota House voted unanimously Monday to authorize the use of breath-activated ignition systems for some first-time DWI offenders.
Under the bill, approved by a 131-0 vote after less than 10 minutes of discussion, repeat offenders and first-timers with high blood-alcohol levels would be required to install the breath-activated devices on their vehicles before they could drive.
"It was time for us to address this issue," said Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester. "Day after day you read it in the paper that drinking and driving has caused another death."
Altogether, 47 states have some type of ignition interlock law. Twelve states require first-time offenders to use the devices regardless of blood-alcohol content.
The House bill stops short of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's original proposal and a companion bill making its way through the Senate. But advocates said the unanimous vote suggests legislators will ultimately embrace the technology this year.
"The Senate has always been more receptive to traffic safety bills than the House has," said Nancy Johnson, legislative director for Minnesotans for Safe Driving.
The main difference in the two bills is the threshold at which the new technology would become mandatory. Under the House bill, drivers who register a blood-alcohol level of 0.2 percent or higher would be required to use the devices, vs. 0.15 under the Senate bill. The Senate also is expected to vote on the measure, possibly this week.
If both bodies approve the proposal, a House-Senate conference committee will try to iron out differences between the two bills, requiring one more vote in each chamber.
Sen. Steve Murphy, chief sponsor of the Senate bill, said he is "between 95 and 99 percent sure" that legislators will reach a consensus on the proposal.
Some advocates were surprised by the unanimous vote, but they said a spate of high-profile accidents involving drunken drivers probably helped erase opposition.
Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, voted for the measure, but he said he's concerned that the devices will become nothing more than a "money maker" for companies that sell and install the technology. He also wondered how the state could possibly monitor all the interlocks.
"It's easy to get around these laws," he said.
But, Rukavina added, "with the types of [accidents] going on, we've got to make sure drunk drivers are off the road."
According to the state Public Safety Department, there were 35,736 DWI arrests in Minnesota in 2008, and 163 alcohol-related traffic deaths. About 40 percent of the state's DWI arrests involve repeat offenders, and a third of the traffic deaths are alcohol-related.
State records also show that motorists with just one prior DWI offense account for nearly 20 percent of all alcohol-related traffic fatalities.
"If we can stop them from getting second offenses, we can make a significant impact," Norton said.
Ignition interlock devices are installed in a vehicle's console. The device requires drivers to blow and then inhale for a certain amount of time. It requires a second breath test five minutes into the drive and randomly tests after that. If the driver fails, the device disables the car. Offenders with multiple cars would have to install an ignition interlock device on each vehicle.
'Make our roads safer'
While other states started using the devices in the 1990s, Minnesota didn't start experimenting with the technology until 2006, when Hennepin and Beltrami counties began a pilot program. Of the 100 or so people in Hennepin County who used the devices, none re-offended, officials said.
Though the devices don't change long-term behavior, experts say the technology has been an effective component in a comprehensive approach to chemical dependency treatment. Under the program, offenders would pay about $100 a month to have the device installed, monitored and later removed.
"It's going to make our roads safer and it's going to help people continue their sobriety," Johnson said. "I think that's the great thing about it -- it's going to force people into following sobriety. A lot of times, people might not be aware that they are drunk. It's going to be a constant reminder."
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425