Proposed Federal Ignition-Interlock Bill Would Likely Change Texas DWI Law

New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg has had an illustrious career in Congress spanning parts of three decades, during which he has had arguably the most impact of any senator on the protection of our nation's highway traffic from the dangers of drunk driving.

He wrote landmark legislation that successfully convinced all 50 states to uniformly strengthen their drunk-driving laws. This legislation threatened the withholding of federal transportation funds from those states that did not raise their minimum drinking age to 21 and that did not lower the minimum blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level at which people are legally intoxicated to .08. The states acted accordingly to preserve their federal funding, essentially creating national standards for minimum age and illegal intoxication levels.

In December, Senator Lautenberg introduced similar legislation with New Mexico Senator Tom Udall. If enacted, the Drunk Driving Repeat Offender Prevention Act of 2009 (DDROP) would withhold federal transportation funding from states that do not pass laws that would require at least six-month installations of ignition interlock devices (IIDs) in the private cars of all drivers convicted of drunk driving.

Ignition Interlock Devices

An ignition interlock device, also referred to as a breath alcohol ignition interlock device (BAIID), is a small breath analyzer about the size of a cell phone that interacts with a vehicle's ignition. Texas law also may refer to such a device as a deep-lung breath analysis mechanism. Mounted on the dash board, the driver must blow into the device's straw, which measures the level of alcohol in the body. If the BAC reading is safe according to a preprogrammed level, the car will start, but if the BAC is unsafe, the ignition interlock prevents the vehicle from starting and the intoxicated driver from driving.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a recent review of the effectiveness of ignition interlock devices in reducing repeat drunk-driving offenses and alcohol-related accidents. The CDC concluded that interlocks reduce repeat drunk-driving arrests by about 73 percent — an amazingly high number. It follows that expansion of required interlock device use among drunk-driving offenders would most likely decrease the number of vehicular crashes involving drunk drivers since fewer of them would be on the roads.

Drunk Driving in Texas

The state of Texas is known for its consistently high rates and numbers of alcohol-related accidents as compared with other states. Driving while intoxicated (DWI)is its official term for the crime of illegal drunk-driving. Currently, Texas' ignition interlock provisions as part of DWI sentencing are not as strict as DDROP would require. Senator Lautenberg reported in his DDROP press release that only 10 states mandate the devices for every drunk driving conviction. Texas is not one of them.

Currently, the main Texas DWI laws concerning IIDs provide:

  • Second Intoxication Offense in Five Years: For a defendant with a second DWI in five years, after the required license suspension period, installation and use of an IID is mandatory for a time equal to the period of the suspension.
  • Community Supervision (Probation): Following a DWI, intoxication assault or intoxication manslaughter conviction, if the defendant is put on probation, the judge may require IID installation and use. However, the condition becomes mandatory if the defendant's BAC was 0.15 or more, or if the defendant is a repeat offender or an offender who has received enhanced penalties for causing particular types of harm such as injuring a peace officer or firefighter. Some exceptions exist if the prior convictions were more than 10 years ago and for some types of employment requiring driving. An IID is mandatory during probation of certain defendants under age 21.
  • Occupational License: Following a DWI, intoxication assault or intoxication manslaughter conviction that results in a license suspension, the defendant may apply for an occupational license just for work, school or family needs. For a first-time offender, the judge may order an IID installation as a condition of the occupational license; for a repeat offender or an offender who has received enhanced penalties for causing particular types of harm such as injuring a peace officer or firefighter, the judge must impose the IID condition, unless the prior conviction was more than 10 years earlier. There is a narrow exception for some types of employment requiring driving.
  • Bail: IID installation is required on a DWI defendant's vehicle as a condition of bail if the defendant is a repeat offender or if the intoxicated driving resulted in serious bodily injury or death of another. This requirement may be waived if not in the best interest of justice.

Installation of an IID is usually at the defendant's expense.

Texas Likely to Jump on the Bandwagon

Texas, being a very large state with thousands of miles of roadways, is likely to comply with DDROP's ignition interlock device installation requirements so as not to risk losing federal transportation funding if the law passes. To comply with DDROP, every Texas DWI conviction, whether first-time or repeat, whether anyone was hurt or killed, and no matter what the level of BAC, would require a mandatory six-month IID requirement.


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