A bill that will extend the use of ignition interlock systems—making the devices available for first-time DUI (Driving Under the Influence) offenders in Pennsylvania—was signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf this week.
And it was all in the name of safety.
Right now, 38 states have laws that require ignition interlock systems for some DUI offenders. With Wolf's signature, Pennsylvania is now the 26th state in the country to extend the use of the so-called "blow-and-go" devices to first-time DUI offenders.
The law is expected to go into effect in about 15 months.
Drinking and driving has long been considered a public health problem in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 9,967 people were killed in alcohol-related vehicle crashes in 2014 (the newest numbers available—2015 and 2016 DUI crash statistics are not yet available).
Pennsylvania drunk driving statistics are no less dismal. Statistics recently released by the Pennsylvania State Police show there was an increase in DUI arrests in 2015, with more than 18,800 injuries reported and more than 4,450 alcohol-related crashes investigated.
Perhaps more alarming is a statistic from advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, more commonly known as MADD: About one-third of those arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol are repeat DUI offenders.
There's more: While current Pennsylvania law mandates that first-time DUI offenders serve a mandatory license suspension, MADD reports that statistically, three out of four people with suspended licenses continue to drive.
And everyone from the CDC to advocacy groups like MADD agrees: In order to cut the number of instances of DUI, existing laws need to be strengthened.
In Pennsylvania and many other states, that's where ignition interlock mandates come in.
An ignition interlock is a device wired into a vehicle's ignition. In order for a driver to get the vehicle to run, he must blow a breath sample into a tube connected to the device. If the air sample contains no measurable amount of alcohol, the engine will start. If there's alcohol in the sample, it won't.
Organizations from the CDC to MADD have been lauding the effectiveness of the devices.
The CDC has credited ignition interlock devices to a significant drop in repeat DUI offenders. The agency said the devices helped reduce that number by about two-thirds.
That's not all: According to MADD, states such as Oregon, Arizona and Mexico have seen DUI-related deaths drop by more than 30 percent after laws were passed that mandated the use of ignition interlock devices.
In Pennsylvania alone, where ignition interlocks are required for people who are convicted of a second or subsequent DUI, the use of the devices has been credited with stopping more than 1.7 million drunk-driving attempts.
Right now, a driver in Pennsylvania is considered generally impaired with a blood-alcohol content (BAC) is .08 percent or greater. The penalties for driving impaired in Pennsylvania are tiered, which means that there are steeper penalties for people with higher BACs and for people with multiple DUI convictions.
Under current Pennsylvania DUI law, first-time offenders are required to pay a fine, attend alcohol and highway safety classes and comply with any other drug and alcohol treatment requirements set forth by the court. First-time offenders must also serve a period of probation, as well as a license suspension of at least 30 days. In many instances, first-time offenders can enter into a deferral program that allows the DUI charge to eventually be expunged—or legally erased from your criminal history.
When the new ignition interlock bill, formerly known as Senate Bill 290, goes into effect, it will allow convicted first-time DUI offenders with BACs greater than 0.10 percent to avoid a license suspension by applying for an ignition interlock license.
Once the state Department of Transportation (PennDOT) issues the license, the DUI offender would be permitted to drive, but only the vehicle equipped with an ignition interlock device. The ignition interlock device would be required to be in use for a year.
Right now, only those convicted of second and subsequent DUI offenses are required to use ignition interlock devices in Pennsylvania.
The move has been widely praised, and is expected to make a huge dent in DUI statistics—and the number of people injured in DUI accidents.