Gov. signs DUI bill into law

John Joyce

A new law will require all Pennsylvania residents, including first-time offenders, convicted of driving under the influence with a high blood-alcohol content to have an ignition interlock system installed in their vehicle. The device requires the driver to blow into a device, verifying their blood-alcohol level is below .08 before the vehicle will turn on.

Governor Tom Wolf signed Senate Bill 290 into law Wednesday.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference on Tuesday, March 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

"Drunk driving is a deadly crime that puts Pennsylvania families at risk and this legislation will help prevent people from driving drunk and endangering themselves and putting other lives at risk," Wolf said in a press release announcing the law.

Before Wednesday, interlock systems were still mandatory but not for first-offense convictions, Wolf's press secretary, Jeff Sheridan, said.

"Prior to the signing today, the law required an ignition interlock device when a person either commits a second or subsequent DUI offense within a 10-year period, refuses chemical testing or illegally operates a vehicle not equipped with an ignition interlock device when one is required," he said.

The Pennsylvania DUI Association — a nonprofit organization that works with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, law enforcement, ignition interlock manufacturers and installers, as well as civic organizations such as SADD ( Students Against Drunk Driving,) to facilitate safety programs in the state — said as many as 5,500 ignition interlock systems are installed throughout the state.

With the passing of the new law, the director of the association, Stephen Erni, said he expects that number to swell by 13,000.

Erni is encouraged by the law's passing, and said he likes the fact that interlock systems focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment for what he admits is a very serious and all-too-often deadly offense.

Better still, he said, the offenders foot the bill.

"The price ranges form $650 to $1,100. The offender pays for it. The companies break it down into monthly payments, usually about $3.50 to $4 per day. So for the price of one or two beers, the person gets to drive."

Defendants who would otherwise lose their licenses due to their convictions, then might lose their jobs and continue to spiral downward, instead get to keep working and have a chance to get their life back on track, he said.

The increase from roughly 5,000 to about 20,000 ignition interlock systems, plus the additional $100 fine the new law imposes, will generate funds directly for the state without costing tax payers a dime, he added.

"Twenty-thousand people paying $100, that is $2 million the commonwealth can use to hire new a new clerk or staff they are going to need to handle all of these cases," Erni said.

While some of the interlock money will certainly go to ignition interlock manufacturers and installers initially, the new law does not constitute a pending boon for the industry, he said.

"Yes and no," he said. "There are going to be some companies that increase their footprint in Pennsylvania., but the reason I say no is because  Pennsylvania. is one of the unique states that has two county probation departments — Allehghany and Dauphin — that are putting in the interlock themselves."

Erni said his association has been inundated since the law was first proposed with calls from other counties asking how their probation offices can get involved in installing their own interlock systems.

Erni said the probation offices performing the installations and monitoring defendants using the interlock systems are, in his opinion, more beneficial to the defendants' chances at rehabilitation, because it forces the defendants to report to their probation department rather than a registered installer, he said.

“It’s a win for the government, it’s a win for the defendants, and it’s a win for the people of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

— Reach John Joyce atjjoyce2@yorkdispatch.comor on Twitter at @JohnJoyceYD