Interlocks for first offenses among DWI proposals heard by lawmakers


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on December 3, 2012 at 7:37 PM

Updated Monday, Dec 3 at 7:41 PM

AUSTIN -- Ekia Smith is just 13 years old. She's lain in a hospital bed with no brain activity since August, when a car leaving a bar struck her on the side of the road. Her devastated family blames alcohol.

"I don't want any other parent to have to go through this," mother Kim Jenkins tearfully told KVUE in an interview last week.

Of the 3,015 traffic deaths in Texas last year, 1,039 -- more than a third -- involved alcohol. The total number of fatalities from driving under the influence in Texas is consistently higher than in any other state, including those such as California and New York with populations greater than that of Texas.

On Monday's agenda at the State Capitol, members of the House Committee on Jurisprudence met to weigh testimony on ways to solve Texas' DWI problem, including whether to require ignition interlock systems for first time drunk driving offenders.

Ignition interlock systems work by requiring the user to breathe into a handset that can detect alcohol on the breath. If the user fails, the vehicle won't start. If the the user passes, they will be asked to blow into the handset at periodic random intervals while driving. Any failed tests are recorded in the device's memory, which is retrieved once a month when the system is brought in for calibration. Some systems also incorporate a video camera, which captures a video recording of the test.

"If you can't stop that first offense, well by golly we can stop that second offense by putting an ignition interlock on their car," said Bill Lewis, public policy liaison with the Texas office of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

Lewis believes requiring interlocks would be just as effective as jail time but cheaper, and in addition avoid the potential family hardships imposed by revoking the driver's license of a working parent.

"It doesn't cost that much money," Lewis told KVUE. "It's not asking too much for somebody who has been convicted of DWI to ask them to blow into a little device in their car to get it started."

"It's going to be somewhere, we fear, between seven and $12 million for us to monitor those with interlocks. It's not just as simple as putting them on," said Rodney Thompson, directory of adult probation for Angelina County and legislative co-chair of the Texas Probation Association.

Thompson compares ordering mandatory interlock devices for all first-time offenders to a costly, unfunded mandate from the Texas Legislature, and instead recommends instituting a standardized system to determine which offenders would benefit the most from the device.

"Do it based on an assessment, do it based on evidence-based practices," Thompson said.

Stopping the first DWI from happening is the ultimate goal. Montgomery County authorities made headlines after arresting a bartender accused of over serving a customer as part of an undercover sting. Assistant District Attorney Warren Diepraam told KVUE operations like "Bars and Cars" and statewide "no refusal" are helping discourage and prevent alcohol-related offenses.

"We saw a 50 percent reduction in fatalities on the Fourth of July in 2011 for no refusal. So it's a program that works, and it's a program that's documented to save lives," said Diepraam, who told KVUE his office has received mixed feedback after news reporter of the undercover program.

"It's received a lot of favorable publicity," said Diepraam. "Of course whenever you do anything in the field of law enforcement, you're never going to make everybody happy, and we upset some people of course, but we definitely got the message out there that you need to be cautious with whom you serve. You cannot just keep serving drunk people and put them on the roads to drive. There are consequences to doing that."

"Punishing them afterwards doesn't bring back any victim, doesn't make any family feel better. The idea is to stop a DWI before it happens," committee chair State Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Alpine) said after the hearing. "The truth is that our rate has come down, and we're doing better than we've done in the past, and we can still do more."

It's a problem with no easy solution, even though what's at stake is clear.

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