TRENTON — Drunk-driving penalties for first-time offenders would be revamped if a bill endorsed Monday by the Senate Judiciary Committee makes it into law.

License suspensions that now range from three months to a year, depending on how drunk the driver was, would be made significantly shorter – ranging from 30 to 90 days. But ignition interlocks would be installed in those drivers’ cars that would prevent the engines from starting if a driver can’t pass a breath test.

State Sen. Nick Scutari, D-Union, said the ignition interlocks would do more to promote safety than a license suspension.

“People with a DWI conviction and suspended license, they drive anyway. So what we’re trying to do is safeguard the public,” Scutari said.

The interlock devices would be installed for three to 18 months, depending on how drunk the driver was.

“If they can comply with the ignition interlock device, they change their behavior,” Scutari said. “Our public is safeguarded for that period of time and then they’re safeguarded in the longer run because we’ve changed people’s behavior. They understand they cannot drink and drive.”

Scutari said the bill, S824, would also double the length of license suspensions for repeat offenders, from two years to four years.

Steven Benvenisti, an attorney who was nearly killed by a repeat drunk driver as a college student and is now a board member for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said 32 states and Washington, D.C., use ignition locks for all offenders.

“This is having essentially a probation officer in the car,” Benvenisti said.

Benvenisti said some states have recorded drops in drunk-driving deaths of 40 percent to 52 percent after adopting ignition lock laws.

“The bottom line is this device prevents crashes and this device saves lives,” said Benvenisti, who said the law is “long overdue” in New Jersey.

A similar bill was passed in 2015 but vetoed by then-Gov. Chris Christie, who said he supported the interlock devices but opposed reducing suspensions of driver’s licenses. Benvenisti says 245 people have been killed by drunk drivers in New Jersey since that time.

The ignition interlock is a small device wired to a vehicle's ignition and requires a breath sample before the engine will start. If the device detects alcohol on the driver's breath above the legal limit, the engine will not start.

Scutari said a third of all traffic fatalities in the state are attributable to drunken driving.

For first time offenders whose blood alcohol content is between 0.08 and 0.10 percent, the device would be installed for three to six months. That offender’s driver’s license would be suspended for 30 days, rather than the current penalty of a three-month suspension.

For those with a BAC of 0.10 to 0.15 percent, the device would be installed for seven months to a year. Their licenses would be suspended for 45 days, rather than the current seven months to one year.

People with a BAC of 0.15 percent or higher would still have their driver’s license suspended, but for 90 days instead of seven months to a year, and the ignition interlock device would be installed for a year to 18 months.

Drivers who refuse to submit to a breathalyzer test would have their license suspended for 90 days for a first offense, rather than seven months to a year.

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