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Pennsylvania car device stops drunks

System requires driver to take breath test before auto will start

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PHILADELPHIA — Breath-alcohol detectors installed in the cars of convicted drunken drivers prevented them from driving under the influence more than 10,000 times in the first year of Pennsylvania's Ignition Interlock Law, according to a study.

Drivers must pass a breath test before the system will allow them to start their vehicles, and they must periodically test themselves throughout their drives. Their blood-alcohol level must be below 0.025 percent — less than a quarter of the legal limit — to keep the car running.

After three lockouts, the driver must pay to have the car taken to a certified service center in order to have the system reset.

Under Pennsylvania's law, drivers whose licenses have been suspended for two years may get the licenses back after one year if they agree to have the interlock device installed in their vehicle.

From Oct. 1, 2001, to Sept. 30, 2002, 1,855 of the 18,600 eligible DUI offenders chose that option, according to the report by the Pennsylvania DUI Association, which was contracted to evaluate the system.

The interlocks' internal logs showed the devices kept those drivers from driving drunk 10,142 times, the report said.

Pennsylvania is one of the first states to complete a comprehensive evaluation of its ignition interlock program, and other states may soon look to Pennsylvania as an example. Jason King, a spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, said he wasn't aware of other figures demonstrating the effectiveness of the devices.

It has sometimes been difficult to track the success of ignition interlock programs, said Dr. James Frank, a psychologist in the office of research and technology with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"The information that comes back to us is very anecdotal," he said.

Pennsylvania started its program in 2000, and participants started using the devices in October 2001, said Dave Holt, assistant manager of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's alcohol highway safety administration. Holt said he hopes the program will be made mandatory after a one-year suspension.

The main complaints about the program so far have involved drivers having to figure out how to get the machine to work, said Anthony Tassoni, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania DUI Association.

"There's an extremely large learning curve," Tassoni said. There are five types of approved ignition interlock devices, with some requiring the driver to just inhale or exhale, while some require the driver to exhale while humming.

Forty other states and the District of Columbia have some form of ignition interlock law, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

New Mexico's ignition interlock law went into effect Jan. 1, so transportation officials there said they are just starting to work out their system — and they're keeping an eye on what Pennsylvania is doing.

"We're going back to change the law to have some fixes," said Virginia Jaramillo, chief of the traffic safety bureau of the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation. "I'll probably be calling them to see how it worked for them."

On the Net: Pennsylvania Driving Under the Influence Association: www.padui.org

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation: www.dot.state.pa.us/

Mothers Against Drunk Driving: www.madd.org

American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators: aamva.org