Gov. Christie conditionally vetoed legislation Monday that would have repealed the mandatory suspension of driver's licenses for first-time drunk drivers and instead required them to install devices that would be able to detect alcohol and stop cars from starting.
Christie returned the bill to the Legislature and proposed imposing both penalties on all drunken-driving offenders.
"By combining our existing, rigorous system of mandatory license suspensions with the active monitoring provided by interlock devices, New Jersey will provide new hope in the fight against drunk-driving deaths and injuries," Christie said in his veto message.
Of the 542 people killed in motor vehicle accidents in New Jersey in 2013, 26 percent had consumed alcohol "to some extent," according to the most recent state police data.
Alcohol-related fatalities were down 15 percent for the year, according to state police.
Christie noted the favorable trend but said that "even if we suffer just one drunk-driving fatality, there is room for improvement."
Since 2005, 24 other states have enacted laws similar to the one passed by the Legislature, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
"We had hoped the governor would sign the legislation," MADD said in a statement. "We are encouraged that the governor supports interlocks for all convicted drunk-driving offenders."
Ignition interlock devices function like a Breathalyzer. Drivers breathe into them, and if the device detects the driver's blood-alcohol content to be above the programmed limit, the car won't start.
Existing law requires repeat offenders and those who register blood-alcohol content of 0.15 or greater to install the device. The legal definition of drunken driving is 0.08.
Currently, first-time DUI offenders can lose their license for three months to a year, pay fines, and face jail time.
The bill vetoed by Christie, which passed the Senate with broad support last month and the Assembly in June, would have eliminated automatic suspension of a first-time offender's license and instead forced the offender to install an ignition interlock device.
The state would suspend offenders' licenses for 10 days, during which time they would have to show proof of the device's installation to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission.
The amount of time the device remained on the vehicle would vary based on blood-alcohol content and whether the motorist was a repeat offender. The minimum penalty would be three to six months' installation.
Christie's recommendation maintains much of that framework.
Under his proposal, offenders would lose their license for a given period of time, after which they would be required to install the device.
Assemblyman Joseph Lagana (D., Bergen), one of the bill's sponsors, said it was important for the device to be installed immediately.
Offenders don't always stop driving simply because their license is suspended, he noted. And unlike New York, New Jersey doesn't offer permits for those who need to drive their car to work, Lagana said.
"Having a full suspension period with an interlock installed after, with a full period of time when there is no interlock device, still allows people to drive drunk," Lagana said.
He said legislators were deliberating on how to proceed.