By John Toole
---- — CONCORD — New Hampshire could let newly convicted drunken drivers continue to drive.
State lawmakers will consider giving judges the discretion to allow first-time offenders to stay on the road, providing they can prove a need to drive and use vehicle ignition systems that test their sobriety.
It would limit driving to keeping or getting a job, attending treatment programs, receiving medical care or taking a member of their immediate family for health-care appointments.
The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee has recommended passage of House Bill 496 on a 17-1 vote.
It has the backing of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but will face opposition from New Hampshire’s police chiefs.
The bill’s sponsor, House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Penacook, was named a “legislative champion” by MADD for his work on the legislation.
“I’m very pleased with the committee’s 17-1 bipartisan vote,” Shurtleff said. “They took a good bill and made it better.”
The bill is expected before the full House in early January.
Shurtleff is confident the legislation will protect the public from drunken drivers.
“This is with the discretion of the court,” Shurtleff said.
Studies show as many as 70 percent of first-time offenders still try to drive, despite their convictions, he said.
The interlock system protects the public by keeping vehicles from being turned on by drunken drivers, Shurtleff said.
“This keeps drunken drivers off the road,” he said.
The units, about the size of a TV remote control, are wired to the ignition system. A driver must blow into the device. If there is too much alcohol in the driver’s system, the units can disable the vehicle.
Shurtleff maintains his bill would help families of drunken drivers, by assuring they don’t also pay a price because of a single bad decision by someone who drove while drinking.
“This keeps them from losing their job,” he said of drunken drivers.
Shurtleff anticipates support in both houses of the Legislature.
“I think it will be well received,” Shurtleff said.
Rep. Bob Fesh, R-Derry, a member of the House committee, agreed with Shurtleff’s analysis and said he supported the bill.
“I think it has a good chance of passing,” he said.
Fesh contends the bill has safeguards to protect the public, while assuring families of a drunken driver aren’t unfairly punished.
“This doesn’t put a family on welfare because you had a DWI and lost your job,” Fesh said.
The first-time offender can return to work and get counseling, he said.
“If they didn’t have a license, there is no way to attend that program,” Fesh said.
He said he likes that the bill would require offenders to pay for the sobriety system, not the taxpayer.
The cost is $80 per month.
“They have to pay,” Fesh said.
Additionally, the first-time offender would pay $50 for a special privilege license, he said.
Frank Harris, MADD’s state legislative affairs manager, said what Shurtleff proposes is one of the group’s top legislative priorities nationwide.
“The bill, from the way we interpret it, would increase the use of ignition interlock devices for convicted drunken drivers,” Harris said.
Mark Stevens, an attorney from Salem who handles drunken driving cases, said Shurtleff’s proposal is a great bill.
“This lets people keep their jobs and complete their treatment and all the aftercare ordered under a first offense,” Stevens said. “It’s a good idea. This lets somebody who makes a mistake admit to it, keep their job and keep their house.”
The Division of Motor Vehicles said 534 drivers in New Hampshire were using interlock devices on Nov. 1, but the number varies daily.
The devices are required in New Hampshire for repeat and first-time offenders convicted with a blood alcohol content level of 0.16, Harris said.
Shurtleff’s bill would let first-time offenders, convicted at the 0.08 level, continue to drive, providing they have court approval for an ignition interlock system, Harris said.
Twenty states require or incentivize the use of ignition interlocks for all convicted drunken drivers, MADD said.
“Massachusetts currently requires this for repeat offenders, but the law has not been updated since 2006,” Harris said.
Massachusetts also has pending legislation similar to HB 496, he said.
Police chiefs object to the bill, which they see as weakening DWI laws.
“We still oppose this. We have always opposed a Cinderella license,” said Michael Sielicki, president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police. “New Hampshire has some of the strongest DWI laws. To water them down doesn’t seem practical to us.”
Because the state’s laws are tough, that can give people second thoughts about drinking and driving, he said.
“The time your license is suspended is a deterrent,” Sielicki said.
He acknowledges the consequences — potential job loss, loss of health insurance — are steep, but stresses they force people to think about what they are doing.
“This is a huge burden on a family,” he said.
The New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency has supported the use of ignition interlock systems, but is reviewing the bill and hasn’t yet taken a position on it, coordinator Peter Thomson said.
The Department of Safety also will be reviewing the bill, which it opposed earlier this year.
“The Department of Safety’s position on bills of this nature has been, and remains, that there must be a significant and meaningful period of hard license revocation before any type of limited license is issued,” assistant commissioner Earl Sweeney said. “We believe this hard revocation period must be no less than 60 days and preferably 90 days or it will not serve as a meaningful deterrent.”
Interlock systems aren’t easy on drivers.
Bob Letourneau, a former legislator from Derry, monitors the program for the state.
Letourneau said two vendors provide systems in New Hampshire, with the average monthly cost about $70.
“We broke it down to about $2.40 a day,” he said. “That’s less than the cost of one drink.”
Under current law, first-time offenders can lose their right to drive for nine months, but that can be reduced to 90 days if they complete a substance abuse program, as well as consent to any after-care requirements.
The law mandates interlock devices for second offenders or those convicted of aggravated drunken driving, which is defined as 0.16 or higher.
“The people who have them are not the choir boys,” Letourneau said.
Car-Tunes Etc. of Derry installs the Intoxalock device made by Consumer Safety Technology.
“No one likes to use them,” owner Bob Brien said.
Consider work. Stevens said it can be tough to close a sale when someone has to tell a client the car won’t start until they blow into the interlock system.
“No one wants one in their own car,” Stevens said.
People worry whether mouthwash, which sometimes contains alcohol, will trigger the system, he said.
But Stevens credits interlock systems with cutting down on instances of operating after revocation, when people drive because they feel they have no choice.
What will be key to watch is what criteria lawmakers or state officials would tie to hours that first-time offenders can drive, he said.
“It will be interesting to see how they impose it, whether there will be a standard number of hours a day or something outside that window,” Stevens said.