MADD pushing more ignition-block devices in Miss.

Published 11:56 pm Thursday, January 22, 2009

Nearly 21 years after a drunken driver plowed into her family’s Honda Civic and killed her parents and sister, Jennifer Sholar said certain sights and sounds still give her vivid flashbacks of the collision.

“Ambulances still freak me out when they go by,” said Sholar, a back-seat passenger who survived the wreck in Wiggins but spent two months in a hospital with severe internal and back injuries.

Now 34, the Petal resident was among about a dozen drunken-driving victims who spent Wednesday at the Mississippi Capitol asking legislators to pass a bill the advocates believe could keep some impaired drivers off the road.

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The victims and Mothers Against Drunk Driving are pushing for the wider use of ignition-interlock devices. The breath-test machines are installed in vehicles used by people convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol. If a driver’s blood-alcohol content is above the 0.08 percent legal limit, the device prevents the vehicle from starting.

Under current Mississippi law, a judge can order a person convicted of a second or subsequent DUI to install an ignition interlock device.

A bill filed this year would let judges order the device to be installed for a first DUI conviction. The bill’s lead author, Republican Rep. Philip Gunn of Clinton, said people often drive drunk many times before they’re stopped and charged with DUI.

“We have this problem with people who don’t understand the seriousness of this crime,” Gunn said at a news conference.

The American Beverage Institute, a national group that represents restaurants, opposes the bill. The group’s managing director, Sarah Longwell, said the proposal “targets the wrong people.”

“By calling for mandatory breathalyzers for first-time offenders, regardless of their BAC level, MADD is ignoring the root cause of today’s drunk driving problem — hard-core alcohol abusers,” Longwell said in a news release from Washington.

MADD’s national director, Laura Dean-Mooney, was in Jackson to lobby for the ignition-interlock bill. She said 146,000 of the devices are being used in the U.S., and only 14 of those are in Mississippi.

Dean-Mooney said eight states now have laws authorizing judges to order ignition-interlock devices for all drunken-driving convictions, and MADD wants such laws in all 50 states. Attorney General Jim Hood said he supports MADD’s push in Mississippi.

Dean-Mooney said 302 people were killed by drunken drivers in Mississippi in 2007.

Sholar — whose last name was then Waldrop — was 14 when her parents and sister were killed on March 27, 1988. The family was driving to a high school science fair when the wreck occurred just a few blocks from the hospital in Wiggins.

Sholar said her sister’s 3-year-old son was in the Civic and survived. She said the repeat-offense drunken driver in the other car survived, was convicted and sentenced to 15 years for each of the three deaths, but was released from prison after about 18 months. She said the driver has since died.

The bill is House Bill 1352.