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Ignition interlocks take hold as deterrent to drunken driving

Claire LeBlanc demonstrated the use of an ignition interlock device in her car in Chatham.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

CHATHAM — A loud beep sounded as Claire LeBlanc put the key into the ignition of her car. It was time for her to prove that she hadn’t been drinking.

She grabbed a large plastic straw hanging from the dashboard and blew into it. The device registered no alcohol on her breath. With a click, the ignition unlocked, and the engine started.

LeBlanc, 69, is among nearly 6,000 convicted drunk drivers in Massachusetts required to use a car ignition interlock device, a technology hailed as an effective deterrent to an intractable crime. They must prove they are sober to start their vehicles, and do so again, at random intervals, while driving.

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“At first, I was not happy about it,” she said. “I did not want to face up to it. Now, I realize it has helped me.”

In a philosophical shift, Massachusetts and other states are increasingly turning to ignition interlocks in the fight against drunken driving, forcing offenders to drive sober rather than barring them from driving at all.

“We suspended the licenses of drunk drivers and hoped they stayed off the road,” said Frank Harris, state government affairs director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “But we found out we can’t hope our way out of this problem.”

Nearly 30 states mandate interlock devices for all first-time offenders, while others require interlocks for first-time offenders whose blood alcohol level exceeds the 0.08 national legal limit by 25 percent or more.

Supporters of tougher drunken driving laws say the breath test approach helps guard against human nature, citing estimates that as many as 70 percent of drivers with suspended and revoked licenses continue to get behind the wheel.

A three-time drunken-driving offender, LeBlanc said the ignition interlock device, which is about the size of a cellphone, has cost her “a ton of money” and creates some awkward conversations when passengers notice it. But by allowing her to drive despite her convictions, “being on the box” has let her keep working and visit her grandchildren.

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It has even helped her quit drinking by making it easier to attend support meetings with others trying to stay sober.

Massachusetts first mandated interlock devices in 2006 under Melanie’s Law, which overhauled the state’s drunken-driving laws. Drivers with multiple convictions must use interlock devices for at least two years after they regain their license.

Over the past decade, the number of drivers required to use the devices has increased sharply. Today there are 5,883 people in the program, according to the state Registry of Motor Vehicles, and proponents want interlock devices mandated for all drunken-driving offenders.

Massachusetts and Idaho are the only states without laws granting a judge the authority to order first-time offenders to use an interlock device, according to MADD, the national group that lobbies for tougher drunken-driving laws.

“Right now, Massachusetts doesn’t stack up very well, compared to other states,” Harris said. “Interlock devices actually save lives.”

Proposed legislation would give first-time drunken-driving offenders a choice between using an interlock device or losing their license for an extended period. Currently, most first-time offenders attend an alcohol-education program and have their license suspended for three months or less, lawyers experienced in drunken-driving cases say.

James Timilty, the state senator who resigned last month to become Norfolk County treasurer, is urging lawmakers to pass the ignition interlock bill.

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“It’s a public safety measure that indisputably would save lives,” he said.

Representative Louis Kafka, a Stoughton Democrat, agreed that ignition interlocks have saved lives by keeping drunk drivers off the road. “So why not broaden the program to reach more people and save more lives?” he asked. “Anything we can do to make the roads safer we must do.”

Critics say the penalty is too harsh. Arthur Kelly, a Newton-based lawyer who represents accused drunk drivers, said mandating interlock devices for first-time offenders would add an unnecessary level of punishment.

“The vast majority of them are not likely to offend again, with or without the interlock,” he said.

But MADD has become so convinced of the effectiveness of ignition interlocks that it no longer supports suspending or revoking the licenses of drivers convicted of drunken driving, and it groups the devices with antilock brakes and airbags as proven lifesaving technologies.

Research bolsters that argument. An article in the January edition of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine concluded that “ignition interlock laws reduce alcohol-involved fatal crashes. Increasing the spread of interlock laws that are mandatory for all offenders would have significant public health benefit.”

Similarly, an article published last year in the American Journal of Public Health linked mandatory ignition interlocks for all drunken-driving convictions to a 15 percent reduction in alcohol-involved crash deaths.

Melanie’s Law also mandates interlock devices, which typically cost drivers about $125 a month, for drivers who receive a hardship license. That allows some offenders to drive during specific hours while their license is suspended to keep them from losing their jobs or face other hardships.

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About 12,500 people have completed the interlock program over the past decade, according to the RMV. About 2,250, or 18 percent, were cited for a violation. A violation occurs when the driver’s blood alcohol level registers at 0.02 or higher. Many drivers are banned from any drinking at all under the terms of their probation.

Interlock devices have prevented drivers who had been drinking from starting their cars more than 30,00 times in the past 10 years, according to MADD. The group surveyed makers of the device to arrive at the figure.

Other violations include tampering with the device and asking someone else to provide a breath sample to start the car. In most instances, violators would be required to use an interlock device for another six months.

“Use of the interlock is a good solution, because it allows people to continue to drive while protecting the public,” said Brian E. Simoneau, a Framingham-based lawyer who specializes in motor vehicle cases. “But it’s not infallible.”

Simoneau said he has heard of intoxicated drivers evading the interlock by using someone else’s vehicle. “They take a spouse’s car, with or without permission,” he said.

But Harris said interlock devices allow offenders to “be a part of society.”

“We are not trying to ban people from drinking,” he said. “We are trying to prevent them from driving drunk. If someone wants to go out and consume alcohol, they should use a taxi or an Uber or have a designated driver. That’s the kind of cultural shift we are looking for.”

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As LeBlanc drove along Main Street on a recent afternoon, the interlock device suddenly rang out. She snatched the straw and took the test without taking her eyes off the road, all in a matter of seconds. Failing a “rolling retest” would not have caused the vehicle to shut down, but could lead to additional sanctions.

LeBlanc said that with the help of support meetings, she no longer drinks. And while she can’t wait to be rid of the interlock device, she says it has helped her in her recovery.

“I’ve been able to participate in life because of it,” she said.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.