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Restaurant lobby seeks to put ignition interlock provision on ice

Ignition interlock device

Richard Roth, a lobbyist for the ignition interlock device for drunk drivers, demonstrates the device in Santa Fe, N.M., in 2005. New Mexico saw a significant drop in repeat DWI offfenders after introducing the device. (AP)

One of Washington's top trade groups for adult beverages is seeking to put on ice a provision within a House transportation bill that would require states to mandate ignition interlock devices for convicted drunk drivers.

The American Beverage Institute, an association that represents more than 8,000 U.S. restaurants, claims that by mandating ignition interlocks -- commonly referred to as in-car breath tests -- for anyone convicted of drunken driving, regardless how low their blood alcohol content, will deny judges the ability to differentiate between low-risk and "hard core" offenders, managing director Sarah Longwell told FoxNews.com.

"Interlocks should only be mandated for people who are 0.15 BAC or above on their first offense or who have multiple offenses at any level," she said. "Below that 0.15 level, a judge should be involved in whether or not the offender gets an interlock."

The provision is included in legislation currently being considered on Capitol Hill. The American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, a $260 billion, five-year plan to link job creation to infrastructure projects, sets aside $493 million for federal highway safety grants.

According to a draft of the legislation, if enacted as currently configured, the provision would offer $25 million per year to states that require the devices to be installed in vehicles of anyone convicted of driving under the influence -- even first-time offenders. 

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) supports the provision, citing ignition interlocks laws as a key component in its overall campaign to eliminate drunk driving. In 2010, more than 10,000 people in the U.S. were killed in crashes involving a drunk driver, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that alcohol detection devices could save nearly 8,000 lives annually.

"While drunk driving remains the primary threat to American families traveling on our roadways, we are closer to making sure no family must endure the pain of losing a loved one to this 100-percent preventable crime," MADD National President Jan Withers said in a statement. "

Fifteen states require all convicted drunk drivers to use ignition interlocks, a breath test device linked to the vehicle's ignition system that will not allow it to start unless the driver's blood alcohol concentration is below a preset level, according to MADD.

After passing ignition interlock laws for all offenders in Oregon and Arizona, those states saw drunken driving deaths plummet by 52 and 51 percent, respectively, the nonprofit group says.

But ABI officials point out that 27 have decided only to target offenders arrested with high blood alcohol concentration levels or repeat convictions, and say that approach is more logical.

"We believe that the incentive should be on the high BAC and repeat offenders who cause the vast majority of alcohol-related fatalities," Longwell said. "It's already very difficult to get those people off the roads. It's those high BAC guys that we need to focus our resources on."

Longwell cited data from the National Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that indicates the average BAC of a drunk driver in a fatal car crash is 0.19 percent, or more than twice the legal limit. The House's proposed solution spreads out "scarce resources to the detriment of catching these hard-core offenders," Longwell said.

Michael Boldin, executive director of the Tenth Amendment Center, said he disagreed with the "one-size-fits-all solution" behind the provision, particularly given that 42 states have already weighed in on whether to put ignition interlock laws on the books.

"Every time we set that precedent that the federal government can mandate on the states certain rules or regulations, then the next time that something bigger comes up -- perhaps a health care mandate -- then there's already the building blocks for this type of power that's been allowed in the past," he told FoxNews.com. 

Boldin said members of Congress may want to consider that states could better attack the problem by focusing their efforts on initiatives that have been proven to work.

"One state may do something really badly and another state may do it very well," he said. "You're going to learn from people's mistakes much faster than the federal government slapping a one size fits all solution on it."

Even with the relatively small sum allocated for the provision nationwide, the cost of the program to states would be prohibitive, Longwell argued, citing an estimate by the American Probation and Parole Association that the price of supervision of offenders to states would exceed $432 million. She also thinks it's the first step to a federal mandate on alcohol-detecting technology in all cars sold in the United States.

"It's not that far away," said Longwell, adding it might be widespread within the next decade. "It sets the stage for new technology that is much more sophisticated, that would automatically be in new cars just like airbags and seatbelts. This is an important step for interlock proponents to get them there."

Proponents of the provision, however, claim ignition interlocks will save taxpayers money. A study on New Mexico's interlock law found that the cost of an interlock was $2.25 per day to the user, who pays for the installation and maintenance of the device. But for every dollar invested in an interlock for a first-time offender, the public saved three dollars, MADD officials said.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, did not commit on Wednesday when asked by a reporter if he intended to keep the controversial provision in the bill, which is not yet final.

As of early Friday, the provision remained in the bill, which was prepped by legislators overnight.