It’s that time of year on Beacon Hill when the real enemy is time itself, and good ideas are left to wilt on the vine — ideas about which there is little or no dispute.
One of those ideas this year is a bill to allow courts to keep first-time drunk driving offenders from re-offending by making them use an ignition interlock device — a system that tests a driver’s blood alcohol level with a handheld breathalyzer before a car will start.
The measure is utterly straightforward — and has passed one branch or another of the Legislature several times over the years. It’s just never made it over that lawmaking finish line. This year should be different.
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Massachusetts is the only remaining state in the nation that has given first-time offenders a pass, imposing interlock devices only for second and subsequent offenses. The devices allow offenders who have won hardship licenses — allowing them to drive to work, for example — to continue to drive as long as all vehicles they have access to are equipped with the locks.
Governor Charlie Baker filed a bill that would allow judges to require the locks for first offenders at the beginning of the now about-to-expire two-year legislative session. But it wasn’t until this month that a proposal supported by Representative William Straus, the Transportation Committee cochair, made it out of committee and won House approval. That bill would allow judges to impose the restrictions where a first-time offender registered a blood alcohol level of 0.15 percent or higher — nearly twice the state’s legal limit of 0.08 and well above that proverbial “two beers” drivers often claim to have downed when pulled over by police.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long supported use of the devices to cut down on repeat offenders. Their studies have shown that the devices are successful in cutting repeat offenses by 70 percent “while the device is installed.” And yet “despite these laws and programs, only about one-fifth of those arrested for DWI have interlocks installed,” the agency notes. (Success hinges on judges ordering their installation. And it can’t prevent someone from driving a car owned by someone else.)
For years, Massachusetts has failed to close that loophole for first offenders — those most likely to be helped by such a device, especially when accompanied by education and support programs.
Last week, Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr attempted briefly to have a similar proposal added to the Senate’s wide-ranging transportation package. He withdrew his amendment but not before expressing his frustration that, after years of trying, the bill is still not law.
“We’ve used ignition interlock devices for those who are not first offenders because we understand the power of this tool to prevent someone who might become a repeat offender from getting behind the wheel while intoxicated and presenting a threat to every person in their path on our roadways and sidewalks during that experience,” he said during debate.
Now a freestanding bill — not part of the transportation package — is indeed once again in the Senate’s court. It has the support not only of the House but also of MADD and AAA Northeast.
There is no earthly reason why it shouldn’t pass. As Tarr noted in his remarks, the Senate has been “unyielding in our commitment to this idea.”
But ideas aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on if they don’t come up for a vote and end up on the governor’s desk. In the remaining days of the session, it’s time this modest safety proposal made it through.
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