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NJ’s new DUI strategy a chance for even bigger change | Editorial

Breathalyzers that prevent intoxicated drivers from starting their vehicles would be even more valuable if states mandated connecting offenders to treatment options.

Ignition interlock systems won't allow a car to start if the driver fails a Breathalyzer test.
Ignition interlock systems won't allow a car to start if the driver fails a Breathalyzer test.Read moreJOSH BANKS /

Breathalyzers that prevent intoxicated drivers from starting their vehicles are now mandatory for anyone convicted of drunken driving in New Jersey, which joins 33 other states and the District of Columbia in requiring "ignition interlocks” for first-timers or repeat offenders with blood alcohol levels at 0.08 or higher.

This worthy approach would be even more valuable if New Jersey and the other states -- including Pennsylvania -- were to mandate connecting first-time as well as repeat offenders to treatment options for alcoholism, other addictions, or both. The matter is urgent: 10,511 people — nearly 30 a day, or about one every 48 minutes — died in drunk driving-related crashes in 2018, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; 355 of last year’s fatalities were in Pennsylvania, and 125 in the Garden State.

Pennsylvania mandates ignition locks for first offenders only if they are convicted of driving with blood alcohol levels of 0.10 or above. In our view, it makes no sense for the commonwealth to opt for anything other than the nationally accepted 0.08 level deeming a person too drunk to legally and safely drive.

The NHTSA cites research showing that ignition locks have led to a 16 percent reduction in drunk driving fatalities in some states. But it’s not unreasonable to expect encouraging alcoholic offenders to enter treatment programs would further reduce the toll on the highways. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy called the new law, which also provides for shorter license suspension periods in some cases, a “common sense” way to reduce the number of fatal crashes while enabling some offenders to more easily continue working, support their families, and live normal lives.

The national organization Advocates for Auto & Highway Safety estimates that a first-time drunk driving offender already has driven drunk 80 times before that initial arrest, a testament to the virulent nature of the illness of alcoholism, as well as addiction.

New Jersey does mandate treatment in certain cases, particularly those involving repeat offenders or drivers with especially high blood alcohol levels at the time of arrest. The state health department’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services provides an Intoxicated Driving Program as well as Intoxicated Driving Resource Centers across New Jersey.

» READ MORE: N.J. man gets 10 years for DWI that killed his 9-year-old daughter

But as the federal Centers for Disease Control points out. “incorporating alcohol abuse treatment into ignition interlock programs shows promise in reducing post-interlock recidivism ... Offenders should have to complete treatment before the interlock"can be removed.

But states could go further, and consider a potential model for a different sort of intervention. Camden County is pioneering a program called Project SAVE which provides professionals at municipal court proceedings to speak to defendants charged with low-level opioid or other illegal drug offenses about treatment. Since the program’s inception in October 2018, municipal court judges have sent 476 such defendants to treatment through the program.

Diversion to treatment may not be the best approach for many of those arrested for drunken driving. But intervention, like treatment, can work. If states can be bold enough to require a high-tech intervention against drunk driving, they ought to consider a more human intervention on behalf of drivers as well.