AUGUSTA, Maine — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is urging states to require first-time drunken drivers to install ignition interlock devices that prevent their vehicles from starting if they have been consuming alcohol.
But the uncertainty of federal funding and the lack of a good system for assessing current practices is causing the administration effort to draw little support in Maine.
“The NHTSA has always been pushing interlocks,” said Public Safety Commissioner John Morris. “We do have an ignition interlock program, but it is not mandatory. Judges can order interlocks [in Maine] but only for habitual offenders, but they don’t have to.”
David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, announced last month that the agency has $20.8 million set aside for grants to help states implement a mandatory interlock program. There are currently 17 states that require first-time drunken drivers to equip their vehicles with the devices.
Data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicates that drunken drivers involved in fatal crashes were four times more likely to have a prior drunk-driving conviction than were sober drivers.
The agency is using the data to push for the mandatory ignition interlock law.
“We really haven’t looked at this as a mandatory law,” Morris said. “If a bill comes in next session, we will need to review it and take a position.”
The secretary of state’s office administers the current law, but it does not have statistics on how frequently the existing law has been used. Neither do the courts, which may collect data individually, but do not have a central database where the information from all of the courts is amassed.
That bothers Secretary of State Charlie Summers.
“I think it is an interesting idea, but I want to know how what we have now is working before we take that next step,” he said. “There will be a cost if it is mandated and even if there [are] federal grants available, what happens when that money runs out?”
If use of the devices is mandated, people who are indigent and found guilty of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence will have to have their device provided by the state. The units cost from $50 to $200 to install, and the monthly fee to replenish the chemicals and have a service check ranges from $50 to $100.
The issue has caused concerns in other states where the device is mandated. States have used a number of funding mechanisms to pay for the ignition interlocks including additional fines on those who can pay the fines and the dedicating of a portion of the alcohol taxes put aside. But some states have had to suspend programs for lack of funds.
For example, New Mexico allocated a portion of its alcohol tax and levied an additional $100 fine on convicted drunk drivers to pay for providing the devices to indigent drivers. New Mexico is a little larger than Maine with a population of a little more than 2 million people, but 40 percent of those using the interlock devices are indigent. The state had to suspend the law when funding ran out last year.
Summers also is concerned with the lack of data in Maine on how the existing system is working. He said if lawmakers consider a first-offender mandate, they should know how the current law has worked and what the actual costs to operate an interlock device are.
“The first thing we have to look at is the cost,” said Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “We have to find out if we can fund this first. It’s part of the economic times we live in.”
He also is concerned that the grants being offered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could turn into a cut in federal funding if the state does not require the devices. He said when federal agencies were pushing mandatory seat belt laws, they started with grants and ended up penalizing states with loss of some of their federal highway safety funding if they did not adopt the law.
Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, the ranking Democrat on the panel, argues that mandates don’t solve the problem of getting drunks off the roads.
“You can put all the mandatory laws in place that you want, but they are still going to drive drunk,” she said. “It’s a tool, but I don’t think it should be mandated.”
Haskell agreed that she would like to see some data on the current ignition interlock law to see if there are ways to improve it before the state looks at a mandate. Even though she does not like the proposal, she expects someone in the new Legislature elected in November will submit legislation on the subject.
“It’s the open session when anyone can put in anything and often they do,” she said.