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Brian Bakst, Associated Press Writer, Published January 20 2010

Ignition locks centerpiece of Pawlenty's DWI proposal

ST. PAUL – Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed expanding the use of breath-activated ignition locks Tuesday as a way to deter convicted drunk drivers from taking the wheel in Minnesota after consuming alcohol.

It’s the centerpiece of a crackdown on repeat DWI offenders that Pawlenty will seek approval for in a legislative session that starts in two weeks.

His proposal would give all people convicted of DWIs a choice: pay to outfit their cars temporarily with an ignition lock or lose their driving privileges altogether. The length of the sanctions would depend on the severity of the offense and prior convictions.

“The message that we want to send loud and clear across the state is that drunk drivers will no longer be able to get behind the wheel without proving their sobriety,” he said. “The slogan we’re going to use is ‘If you don’t breathe, you don’t leave.’ ”

The campaign drew immediate support from law enforcement and safety advocates such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“Ignition interlock is a proven technology that successfully separates drinking drivers from their motor vehicles,” said Lynne Goughler, public policy chairwoman for the Minnesota MADD chapter whose parents were killed by an intoxicated driver.

Minnesota had almost 36,000 DWI arrests in 2008 and alcohol-related crashes took 163 lives that year. The legal limit for driving is 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content.

Pawlenty said he believes drivers would pay the average $100 monthly cost to equip and operate the system because it would legally get them back on the road faster. A portion of the money would be set aside to defray costs for those who can’t afford the technology.

Drivers with three or more DWIs could be forced to keep the locks on their cars for three years or more.

The ignition device requires people to blow into a tube and prevents them from starting the car if the alcohol level in their breath exceeds 0.02 percent. It tests their breath periodically as a defense against tampering and other mischief, and a failed reading can cause the engine to shut itself down. Every month, accumulated information is downloaded and people who fail their tests can be charged with additional crimes.

Minnesota has had a pilot project involving 500 offenders; Pawlenty said only one has re-offended.

Pawlenty’s plan also would lower the blood-alcohol-content threshold at which tougher administrative sanctions kick in. Under current law, anyone who registers 0.20 percent or more can face longer driver’s license revocation. His plan lowers that to 0.15 percent.

Sen. Mee Moua, a St. Paul Democrat who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she wants to see a full accounting and details for the initiative before endorsing it. But she said the Legislature’s authorization of the ignition-lock pilot program suggests the proposal faces good odds.

“Obviously, it’s a good tool to have in the toolbox,” she said.