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Of the 50,000 people arrested in Illinois this year for driving under the influence, about 9,000 opted to keep their driving privileges by installing a device in their cars that monitors blood-alcohol content. The option is part of legislation that went into effect Jan. 1, with the intent of cracking down on drunken driving.
A joint effort among Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Secretary of State Jesse White and lawmakers, a goal is to decrease offenders’ subsequent DUI arrests, said Susan McKinney of the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office.
She admitted that participation during the first year of the program was not as high as coordinators hoped it would be, but the reasons why are unclear. Exact figures for the number of DeKalb County residents with a device were unavailable.
“The program is going well and running very smoothly, even though the numbers are lower than we expected,” said McKinney, who is the administrator for the Breath Alcohol Ignition Interlock Device, known as BAIID. “We’re not exactly sure where the breakdown is ... We want to get a solid year under our belts before we start looking at changes.”
A BAIDD requires motorists to breathe into it so their blood-alcohol content – it cannot exceed 0.025 – can be measured before starting their vehicles.
It also checks a driver’s blood-alcohol level several times during the course of a trip. If the driver refuses to breathe into the device, the vehicle’s horn begins to sound and headlights flash, alerting law enforcement officials.
The law allows all first-time DUI offenders to install a BAIID in their vehicles to keep driving privileges. Second-time offenders whose driving privileges have already been suspended can install the BAIID after being granted a permit from the state.
“Getting one of these is not really an option at all if they want to have driving privileges of any kind,” said DeKalb County State’s Attorney John Farrell, noting that he’s surprised use of the devices has been low in 2009. “ ... The biggest complaint that we have heard is from the defense bar and defendants, saying that the cost is extreme.”
DUI offenders foot the bill for BAIIDs, which cost about $75 to install and an additional $75 a month to rent. There is also a monthly $30 charge for the Secretary of State to monitor the driver’s progress and compliance with the system.
McKinney said the tough economy might be contributing to some offenders’ lack of participation.
“The cost certainly is a factor for some people but ... it’s a lot cheaper than getting caught driving illegally or losing your job because you couldn’t get to work,” she said. “We figured it out to be equivalent to about two beers a day.”
She also thinks participation would increase if more people knew about it.
“Because it’s still a new program, people don’t know about it and it’s not being offered to them as it should be,” she said. “We still have to look at all the factors.”
Both McKinney and Farrell agree that it’s premature to determine the success of the program or decide whether changes need to be made.
“It’s too early to tell what kind of impact this is going to have, long-term, on DUI recidivism,” Farrell said. “Next year we will have a lot more information to base opinions on.”
DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott said local compliance with the system is fairly good. But he and Farrell mentioned a couple of cases in which violations were filed for tampering with the devices or against drivers who have had passengers breathe into them.
More than 1,000 Illinois residents taking part in the program have tried driving with a blood-alcohol content that’s higher than 0.05, McKinney said.
“That means we have stopped people from driving with that much alcohol in their system more than 1,000 times,” she said. “That’s pretty significant.”
Regardless of whether the program needs to be tweaked, it has so far served its purpose, Scott said.
“I think (the BAIIDS) are a good step forward,” he said. “There are ways around them sometimes, but they can also be a very good deterrent. “