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USE OF DWI DEVICE URGED

Local judges apparently are not getting behind a device that could keep chronic drunken drivers from getting behind the wheel of their car.

After a three-month sales effort by a Delaware company marketing a new-generation ignition interlock, the company has installed only three devices in Erie County.

That has prompted two top county officials to say they will begin recommending that judges order installation of the device as a condition for every DWI felony offender who wants back his or her driver's license.

District Attorney Frank J. Clark and Probation Director George B. Alexander said they will direct their underlings to make the recommendation at the time of a felony offender's sentencing.

Also, Alexander said his probation officers have begun combing through records of DWI offenders who are about to get their licenses back. Probation officers will ask judges to amend the probation conditions to include installation of the device for some offenders, he said.

If enough judges go along with the recommendations, the company will stay in Erie County, said Jack L. Dalton, East Coast regional director for National Interlock Systems.

Dalton said he likes what he's hearing from Clark and Alexander, but it won't be enough if the judges do not order installation of the devices.

"I'm losing money every month I'm here," Dalton said. "If things aren't going to change, we'd have to leave the market because it's not profitable. We don't do this for charity."

Alexander said some judges may hesitate to order the device because they're unfamiliar with the new technology.

Once they see how effective it can be, more judges will order installation, he said.

"Our interest in this problem is not the amount of business generated by Jack Dalton," Alexander said, "but being able to provide the courts an alternative to monitor people getting their driver's licenses back."

Acting State Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. McCarthy said the offender's background and circumstances of the case would dictate whether he orders installation of the device.

"If it is recommended by the Probation Department, I take it under consideration as a prospective rehabilitative attempt to allow someone to maintain their employment and affect some form of conditional license.

How often he follow the probation officers' recommendation for the device is an open question, McCarthy said.

"I take into account what they suggest, and many times I confirm it and sometimes I do not," the judge said. "To suggest it would be done in all cases, I'm not prepared to say. Should it be done in some case? I believe that to be true."

The ignition interlock prevents a car from starting if it measures a driver's alcohol level at 0.025 percent or higher. The threshold for drunken driving is 0.10 percent.

The National Interlock Systems device requires the driver to hum while blowing into the device, so the driver can't use a balloon or oxygen tank to provide a bogus breath sample.

And while someone other than the driver can still take the test to start the car, the new device randomly asks for a "rolling retest" five to 15 minutes after the car has started.

The car will not shut off if the driver fails the test or doesn't take it, but the horn will honk continuously until the vehicle is turned off.

The unit will log the time and date of the alcohol reading. The new ignition interlock relies on different technology that measures solely alcohol, so cigarette smoke and other scents won't trigger the kinds of false reports that prompted so many complaints from offenders and judges about previous ignition interlock devices tried in the county, Dalton said.

Probation officers now supervise roughly 600 people on probation for felony DWI convictions in Erie County.

County officials previously said they would like to see 400 devices installed by year's end.

"I don't see a down side," Clark said. "I don't know how much good it'll do, but whatever good it does, it's more than being done now."

"What we'll do is urge the court, because of the continuing problem with repeat offenders, to order the ignition interlock system be a condition of the probationary sentence," Clark said. "So when the license is restored, and this person is permitted to drive, we have some way to ensure while he remains on probation that he's not drinking and driving.

Dalton said he has not set a deadline for how long his company will nurture Erie County's business at a loss before deciding to leave the market. And he declined to comment on why judges have so far refrained from ordering the devices.

"The courts can either accept it or reject it," Clark said. "But if probation recommends it and we recommend it, we have a greater likelihood that it'll be used."

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