Judges may soon have another way to force drunken drivers to get clean and sober by making them have their breath tested twice a day instead of blowing into machines that keep their cars from starting.
The proposal, approved by a House committee last week, would allow judges to place repeat DUI offenders into a new program, known elsewhere as “24/7 Sobriety,” instead of having ignition interlock devices installed on their vehicles. State law currently requires interlock devices for drivers with more than one DUI. Judges would have the discretion to order the devices as well as the 24/7 program.
In general, the program outlined in HB 7005, approved unanimously by the House Economic Affairs Committee, would require that drivers submit to twice-daily breath tests, random urinalysis or continuous monitoring devices, such as drug patches or ankle bracelets.
Supporters say the 24/7 abstinence-based programs have shown significant reductions in drunken driving and other alcohol- or drug-related offenses such as domestic violence, and have better compliance rates than the interlock devices.
The proposal is the latest salvo in a vendor-driven fight about possibly expanding the use of ignition interlock devices, used by more than 10,000 Floridians, to first-time DUI offenders. Vendors have pushed that idea over the objections of state highway safety officials.
But instead of adding to the vendors’ market share, an amendment slipped onto HB 7005 last week would lead to the new 24/7 program—possibly shrinking the use of interlock devices. The bill also includes a priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford dealing with driver’s licenses.
Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles executive director Julie Jones, who recently lost a court fight to interlock-device vendors, is one of a growing number of driving safety experts who believe the abstinence-based programs are a better way to ensure that repeat offenders clean up their act. Jones has proposed shifting half of interlock-device users into a 24/7 program and measuring the effectiveness of both programs for five years.
“The current IID (ignition interlock device) program has been very helpful for the treatment of impaired driving offenders. But why limit ourselves to one method that is exclusive to drinking while driving while drugged-driving violations continue to increase?” Jones said recently.
Jones said she was not responsible for the amendment that would give judges the option to impose the 24/7 program instead of the interlock devices, but she did change it so that her department would have to authorize the program. And she has repeatedly objected to efforts by the vendors to expand the interlock-device program—a $10 million a year industry in Florida—to first-time offenders, something backed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and favored by federal transportation officials. But Jones said research shows that the majority of first-time offenders don’t need more intervention to stay out of trouble.
The amendment was proposed by a vendor for Intoximeter, a hand-held breath testing device used by 24/7 programs elsewhere and already in use in other programs in Florida.
Letting drivers with multiple DUI offenses get behind the wheel without interlock devices would be a major shift in policy, Douglas Mannheimer, a lobbyist for Alcohol Countermeasure Systems, told the House panel last week. ACS is one of three interlock vendors now doing business with the state.
“The difference in policy now is that person that’s in the program may … go to the convenience store, buy something, get in that car. Right now … the car would not start,” Mannheimer said.
But under the proposed changes, “we could have second, third or even fourth offenders driving when I think the word is they proverbially fell off the wagon that afternoon,” he said.
Meanwhile, a pilot 24/7 program in Jacksonville, the first in Florida, is slated to begin during the first week in May. The program was developed by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and the Northeast Florida Safety Council, the organization that provides court-ordered services, including DUI programs, in a nine-county region including Jacksonville.