A Senate panel on Monday approved a bill that would make installation of ignition-interlock devices, rather than license suspension, the main penalty in most drunken-driving cases.

First-time DWI offenders could continue driving with the mechanism, which blocks a vehicle from starting unless the operator exhales a clean breath sample into it.

Second or subsequent offenders would need a restricted-use license — allowing only work-related or other travel set by a judge — for at least the first year the interlock is in place.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the measure, S-2427, sponsored by its chairman, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, in a 12-0 vote, with Sen. Christopher Bateman, R-Somerset, abstaining.

Ignition locks were mandated in certain cases under Ricci’s Law, enacted in January 2010. That law required first-time offenders with a blood-alcohol concentration of more than .15 percent, and those who refused to take a breath test, to have the interlock installed for six months after a suspension ended.

Last December, the Law Revision Commission called for expanded use of interlocks after studying reports on reducing drunken driving from sources such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and concluding that lengthy license suspensions do not prevent drunken driving.

“The general trend seems to be, while an ignition interlock device is installed, it’s the most effective tool for separating the drinking from the driving,” says the LRC’s executive director, Laura Tharney.

S-2427 would require a sentencing court to order interlock installation in a vehicle the offender owns or leases or of which he or she is the principal operator.

A first-time offender with a blood-alcohol concentration of .08 percent to .10 percent would be required to have a device on his vehicle for three to six months. A person with no car would face suspension for that same period of time.

First-time offenders with a BAC of greater than .10 percent, or those who drove under the influence of drugs or inhalants, would be required to have the device for seven to 12 months, while a person with no car would face suspension for the same period.

For second-time offenders, the penalty would be device installation for two to four years, or license suspension for that same period if the offender lacks a car. For third and subsequent offenses, the device would remain in place for 10 to 20 years; people with no car would have their license suspended for the same period.

First-time offenders not owning, leasing or having access to vehicles would continue to face suspension.

Violation of the interlock requirement would be a disorderly persons offense.

Defense lawyer Jeffrey Gold of Cherry Hill, a past president of the State Bar Association’s Municipal Court Practice Committee, says the bill would  reduce the impetus for defendants to hire  lawyers.

Jon-Henry Barr, president of the N.J. Municipal Prosecutors Association, similarly commends the bill for its “flexibility for people for whom [a drunken driving offense] really is an isolated incident.” But he says it should address how to prevent abuses, such as driving someone else’s car to escape detection.