A new Maine law will let first-time drunken-driving offenders get back behind the wheel after just 30 days, but the shorter license suspension will come with a deterrent.

Any driver who has their license reinstated early will have to take a sobriety test before their car will start.

The key to the law is relatively new technology called an ignition interlock device, which can measure a person’s blood-alcohol level. If the driver isn’t sober, the car won’t start.

When the law takes effect Dec. 1, Maine will join 19 other states that are using ignition interlock devices to deter drunken driving.

“The use of ignition interlocks is a big step forward in our goal to end drunk driving on Maine’s roads,” said state Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, who sponsored the bill. “These devices have the power to save lives and help offenders at the same time.

“Convicted drunk drivers who have an interlock can keep their jobs, keep going to school, and at the same time, keep the public safe,” Nutting said in a prepared statement.

His bill, L.D. 1260, was signed into law Monday by Gov. Paul LePage. It received unanimous support from the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, and was supported by AAA of Northern New England and the national organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“This is a great day for the people of Maine, who are now safer on their roadways,” MADD National President Jan Withers said in a written statement.

Ignition interlock devices aren’t new to Maine. The secretary of state’s website says they have been used for repeat offenders for years to allow them to get their licenses back more quickly.

Nutting said a number of companies manufacture ignition interlock devices, with most of the installations in Maine done by an Iowa-based company called Intoxalock.

The new law packs a much stiffer penalty for drivers who choose not to use the devices, increasing the license suspension period from the current 90 days to 180 days.

That provision was opposed by the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

In a letter submitted to the Criminal Justice Committee in April, defense lawyers said a 180-day suspension is unreasonable for a rural state like Maine, where people have to travel long distances to reach their jobs.

“Doubling the license suspension to 180 days would exact significant hardship on first-time OUI offenders, most of whom never commit another OUI again,” the defense lawyers wrote.

But Rep. Mark Dion, a Democrat from Portland who co-sponsored the legislation, said, “I think it’s an appropriate trade-off.”

“The interlock device is the answer to the rural nature of our state. … The best anti-crime program is being able to meet your family responsibilities,” said Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff.

An ignition interlock device is about the size of a cellphone and is wired into a vehicle’s ignition system. A driver must blow into the device — and have a blood-alcohol level below 0.08 percent — to start the car.

A driver who passes the initial test must pull over a few minutes later and take a second sobriety test. The ignition interlock device can’t turn the engine off, but if a driver doesn’t submit to a retest, it will make the car’s horn honk and its lights flash continuously.

Under the new law, a driver whose license is suspended for drunken driving will be eligible for reinstatement and an ignition interlock device after 30 days.

Drivers will pay $100 to have their license reinstated and $2.50 a day to lease the device, and must use the device for 150 days.

Drivers who don’t use the devices will have their licenses suspended for 180 days and pay $50 reinstatement fees.

Some states take the extra step of requiring that a camera be installed on a car’s windshield, to ensure that no one other than the convicted driver blows into the unit. Maine opted against a camera provision.

Nutting said Criminal Justice Committee members wanted to make sure that the device would be affordable to everyone.

“I wanted to make sure this wasn’t a rich man’s out,” he said Tuesday night.

Nutting said he is optimistic that the devices will significantly reduce the rate of repeat offenders by making it difficult to circumvent the law.

“In the end, my main motive was to get as many of these devices as we could into people’s cars and to let them return to their jobs and to their schools. If we hadn’t done something, they would have re-offended,” he said.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at [email protected]

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