FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Prospects for a bill supported by bourbon producers and Mothers Against Drunk Driving improved Wednesday when Kentucky lawmakers reversed course to advance the proposal aimed at increasing the use of a device that blocks a vehicle from starting if the driver isn’t sober.
The bill to strengthen Kentucky’s ignition interlock law had stalled at a recent House Judiciary Committee meeting when it failed to win enough support.
It came up again Wednesday and won overwhelming backing. Supporters included several committee members who abstained from voting on the bill at the previous meeting. The Senate-passed proposal now heads to the House. If it passes there, it would return to the Senate for consideration of changes made by House members.
Supporters say the bill aims to reduce drunken driving by making ignition interlock devices available to more first-time DUI offenders. Kentucky’s existing interlock law makes the devices available to repeat offenders and drivers caught with extremely high blood alcohol concentrations.
The bill’s supporters on Wednesday included Darrin Jaquess, who survived a fiery crash that killed 27 people in 1988 when a drunken driver struck a church bus on a Kentucky interstate.
“If we save one life, we’ve done something,” he told the committee.
Jaquess, who spent more than two weeks on life support after the horrific crash, said he sees the use of ignition interlocks as a deterrent that should apply to first-time DUI offenders.
“If we don’t give stronger punishment to these first offenders, they become repeat offenders,” said Jaquess, who is now a Radcliff real estate agent.
An ignition interlock, about the size of a cellphone, is wired into the ignition system of a vehicle. Drivers must blow into the devices in order to start their vehicles. If drivers have measurable amounts of alcohol in their system, the vehicles won’t start.
The bill’s supporters include the Kentucky Distillers’ Association and MADD, the nation’s best-known advocacy group against drunken driving.
Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, the bill’s lead sponsor, said that use of the devices remains low among DUI offenders. In 2017, Kentucky had about 24,500 DUIs, he has said.
Under the bill, first-time DUI offenders could choose to have the interlock devices installed in their vehicles for six months, Westerfield said. They would retain their driving privileges. Those opting against installing the devices would face nine-month suspensions, he said.
Westerfield said it’s an incentive meant to increase use of the devices.
The bill’s critics said DUI offenders have to show proof of auto insurance to participate in the interlock program. But many offenders are unable to afford the sharply higher insurance premiums stemming from DUIs, the critics said. Meanwhile, the bill would significantly lengthen the license suspensions for first-time offenders not using the devices, they said.
Critics also said fees associated with ignition devices would be onerous for offenders already facing legal costs, higher insurance premiums and other costs related to their DUIs.
The result would be that some offenders continue driving without insurance and with suspended licenses in order to get to work, they said.
“It’s got unintended consequences that they really haven’t addressed,” said Lexington attorney Fred Peters.