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New law aids DUI offenders

ADDISON COUNTY — Many drunk driving offenders will have the ability to get on the road quicker beginning next month if they install a state-approved ignition interlock system designed to ensure they are not operating under the influence.
The reason is Act 126, a new state law passed by the Legislature in 2010 that takes effect on July 1.
The law allows certain drunk driving offenders to be issued a restricted driver’s license, or RDL, to operate a non-commercial vehicle if they pay for installation of an ignition interlock system that disables the car if they have been drinking. The RDL is void if the driver attempts to circumvent that system.
Offenders who have refused to submit to requested blood-alcohol tests or whose drunk driving conduct resulted in death/serious injury to others are not eligible for RDLs, noted Chauncey Liese, the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles’ legislative coordinator.
“This is just one tool, and we want it to work,” said Liese, who will help oversee implementation of the ignition interlock program that is already in wide use throughout the nation.
It is a tool aimed at reducing the current license suspension timeframes for DUI offenders who are serious about bouncing back from their transgressions and who need a vehicle to keep their jobs or get to other vital appointments.
“We live in an incredibly rural state,” said Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, who was a member of the House Judiciary Committee that discussed the ignition interlock bill at length last year. “You need transportation to get to your job, to go to the store, to live your life.”
Those deemed eligible for RDLs under the new law must contract with one of two companies (Smart Start or Intoxalock) certified in the state for the installation of ignition interlock systems. The locks cost anywhere from $60 to $90 per month, according to Liese. The company installs the system and leaves it in place until the offender’s regular license is reinstated.
The driver must blow into a device and register an alcohol-free reading in order for the vehicle to start, noted Liese. The system features a camera that at the same time takes a picture of the driver’s compartment to minimize the chance of a sober friend starting the vehicle and turning over the wheel to a drunk driver, Liese said. And the system also demands rolling re-tests of the driver while en route to ensure a sober party is driving for the duration of a trip. A driver who fails to respond to the re-test will see his vehicle lights flash and horn sound repeatedly, thereby alerting authorities to an RDL violation, according to Liese.
Ignition interlock devices carry an expense and various hurdles, but car-dependent users in other states have found them worth it to remain gainfully employed. And the Vermont law can shave substantial chunks off license suspensions.
First-time offenders currently subject to a 90-day suspension or those under 21 subject to a civil six-month suspension may operate under an RDL after only 30 days without a license. Reinstatement of the driver’s regular license requires operation under a valid RDL for six months, among other requirements.
Second-time offenders otherwise subject to an 18-month suspension may drive under an RDL after a 90-day period. Reinstatement of the driver’s regular license requires operation under a valid RDL for 18 months, among other requirements.
And third or subsequent offenders otherwise subject to a lifetime suspension of their driving privileges may drive under an RDL after a one-year suspension period. Reinstatement of the driver’s regular license requires operation under a valid RDL for three years, among other requirements.
The DMV is ready to roll out the program and is updating its website (www.dmv.vermont.gov) to give details.
Liese is anticipating ample demand for RDLs, given that drunk driving is one of the most common offenses processed in the state’s court system. Liese said there are 16,000 DUI first-offense cases on the state books dating back to 1990. Some of them have lingered due to multiple suspensions and failure to pay fines. There are 14,000 DUI second-offenses on the state books, also dating back to 1990.
Members of Addison County’s law enforcement and legal communities said they look forward to seeing how the new law works.
“I think it is a good effort to deal with the DUI issue, but I want to wait and see how effective it will be,” said Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley. Specifically, Hanley wants to see if the ignition interlock systems function as advertised and stand up to those who try to sidestep them.
Addison County Public Defender Jerry Schwarz agreed the new law will provide some new recourse to some DUI offenders who now “either have to find rides from family members, or risk further driving-with-a-suspended-license charges and convictions in order to be able to work and put food on the table.”
ON A DLS TREADMILL
But Schwarz added the new law isn’t an option for people who have had their driver’s license suspended for non-alcohol-related reasons, or who have been unable to catch up on accrued fines and/or meet other sanctions that have prevented them from getting their license reinstated. And officials note some offenders will not be able to afford the ignition interlock devices.
“These people can get on a DLS treadmill,” Schwarz said, referring to the legal charge, driving while license suspended.
“DLS, to me, is really the bigger problem,” he added. “It’s fixable, but nobody really wants to fix it.”
Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster agreed with Schwarz that the new law would help people who are currently “forced into the dilemma of having to drive illegally or lose their job. We certainly prosecute a lot of offenses for people driving on suspended licenses. It is helpful to have a tool for people who are on the right track who, as long as they’re not drinking, will be able to remain employed.”
Fenster acknowledged Schwarz’s concern about the lack of recourse for DLS offenders. But he said the new law will at least help people “never get that first DLS.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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