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Bill Aimed at Device for Drunks’ Cars Gains

Times Staff Writer

An Assembly committee Monday approved a bill to establish a pilot program giving judges authority to require installation of devices in the automobiles of second-offense drunk drivers to prevent them from starting their cars after consuming in excess of about two drinks.

A 4-1 vote sent the bill from the Public Safety Committee to the Transportation Committee for further consideration.

Under the bill, an experimental anti-drunk driving device program would be conducted in Los Angeles County and three other counties to be determined later.

“We need a new way to put an end to the death and destruction caused by drunk drivers,” said Assemblyman Sam Farr (D-Carmel), author of the measure. “A drunken driver does not understand the meaning of fines and penalties. This legislation does not only discourage, it stops a drunk from driving.”

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Discretionary Authority

Farr’s bill would give judges discretionary authority to order the devices installed in cars belonging to second-offense drunk drivers and also to first offenders found to have had a blood-alcohol content level exceeding .14%. A motorist with a .10% blood-alcohol reading is considered to be legally drunk in California.

The devices, which cost about $300 plus $35 to $40 for installation, look like a television remote control channel selector and hang from the dashboard. They contain a computer chip and are attached to the automobile’s starter.

A driver must blow into the unit for five seconds and register a blood-alcohol reading of less than .04% in order to start the car after the ignition has been turned on.

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The .04% figure means that the average driver could have had a maximum of two drinks, according to Farr. He noted that now a second-offense drunk driving probation calls for no drinking and driving at all.

An estimated 30% to 40% of the people arrested in California yearly for drunk driving, or about 50,000 people, are repeat offenders.

If a repeat drunk driver was ordered to buy a device and could not afford to pay the total cost in a lump sum, the court could arrange for installment payments. County taxpayers would pay the cost for indigents.

The Department of Justice would test and certify the anti-drunk driving device to be used. One such device, invented by Jack Simon of Carmel Valley, a Farr constituent, is manufactured by the Safety Interlock Co. of Carmel. Two other companies reportedly also are making similar devices.

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Despite a rash of new state laws in recent years cracking down harder on drunk drivers, such as stiffer penalties and bigger fines, Farr said the number of traffic accident deaths involving alcohol has not dropped dramatically.

He cited Highway Patrol figures showing that 2,684 people were killed in alcohol-related automobile accidents in 1980 compared to 2,607 people in 1985.

The anti-drunk driving device bill is supported by the Highway Patrol, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and the National Traffic Safety Institute.

It is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, who argue that the devices should be required in lieu of a drunk driving fine or jail sentence.

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