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Lawmakers Want 'IIDs' For First-Time DUIs

Someday soon, cars will drive themselves. But until then, lawmakers want to make sure some cars don’t drive at all.

House and Senate committees have voted for a bill forcing first-time DUI offenders to install ignition interlock devices.

An ignition interlock device, known in legislative speak as IID, is a hand-held breathalyzer wired to a car’s ignition.  The concept behind it is simple – no sober breath, no ignition.  But the politics behind it aren’t.

Republican Senator David Simmons of Longwood thinks anyone who refuses a breath test for a second time should be forced to install an IID on his car for a year. He’s alarmed by recent studies showing Florida’s breath test refusal rate is 82 percent. The national rate hovers between 19 and 25.  

But by the time Simmons’ bill reached the Judiciary Committee, it was heavily watered down. Now it requires IIDs for first-time DUI convictions. With the compromise in place, it rocketed through a very crowded agenda.

“Okay, we’ve got 1244 by Senator Simmons. Senator Simmons, please explain the bill. You’re recognized….’Senators, 1244 simply requires that there be mandatory placement on a person who is convicted.’  …Okay, Joyce, please call the roll. We’ve heard that fine explanation. Best one yet by Senator Simmons. “

It’s standard to suspend a person’s driver’s license for a year for refusing to be tested. But last year, the Legislature made it a misdemeanor to refuse a test a second time. Violators face up to a year in jail.  But the law is being challenged in the Florida Supreme Court.   

And while that’s being sorted out, the House has no desire to crack down again on repeat refusers, says Republican Scott Plakon. Plakon is also from Longwood and he’s carrying the companion measure.

“I’m hoping one day we can approach that, but I don’t think the will was there with the membership to do that right now.”

But even the compromise ran into trouble in the Highway and Waterway Safety Subcommittee. One of the problems is that IIDs get mixed reviews.

Plakon points to studies showing that six months after an IID is installed, a first-time offender is six-times less likely to get re-arrested for DUI.

“In looking at the statistics on these around the country and even in Florida, it’s stunning on how well these do at keeping drunk drivers off the street.”

Kristen Allen, a Mothers Against Drunk Driving lobbyist, says data recorded by the IIDs prove they’re saving lives.

“Since October 2008, interlocks have stopped at least 630,000 drinking and driving occurrences in Florida. At least 49,000 of those drivers have had a BAC of .08 or above, and .08 is our legal limit.”

But critics aren’t convinced. Laura McLeod is executive director of the Florida Association of DUI Programs. They provide the classes and counseling offenders have to attend before getting their licenses reinstated. IIDs cost about 80 dollars a month, and McLeod says lots of drivers can’t afford it.

“Fifty-one percent of all offenders that are currently mandated to be on the ignition interlock device -- 51 percent -- do not get it installed. And that means they are driving without a license, without any intervention. They are outside of our system.”

You Tube is littered with tutorials on how to beat an IID, and many drivers get a passenger to blow into the tube, McLeod says. She says the devices are so unreliable, the data they collect can’t be used in court.

“The device is only approved by NHTSA as a screening device. And what that means is one in 20 blows will be a false positive and one in 20 blows will be a false negative.”

McLeod says IIDs are appropriate in some cases, but they do little in the long run to reduce recidivism. The state spends $420,000 a year to administer IID programs, but the $12 fee it charges users generates only $180,000, according to a legislative analysis.   

But Plakon argues an IID only has to work once to save a life.

“For me, it seems that I would rather have it stopped at the point of driving, rather than hoping by counseling someone that they are persuaded not to do this in the future.”

The bill passed the committee 12-1. Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, cast the lone “no” vote.

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.