Jul. 21—CONCORD — An influential legislative rules panel said the Department of Safety lacked authority to set a low standard to keep a convicted drunken driver's car from starting if it's equipped with an ignition interlock device.
The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules voted 7-1 Thursday to lodge a formal objection against the agency's longstanding practice to block starting any car in which the driver registers a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of .020 or greater.
A 2006 law the Legislature passed for this program set a BAC level of .025 to keep a car from starting.
The panel took action against an agency rule setting this lower standard.
Anyone convicted of aggravated drunken driving or a repeat DWI offense must have installed an ignition interlock device in the car or truck for up to two years after restoration of driving privileges.
The offender has to pay the cost to install and monitor the device.
"You have taken a punitive action that is not included in the legislation; that is what bothers me," said state Sen. James Gray, R-Rochester.
"I am a teetotaler so I am not going to worry about it for me, but someone else with their vehicle not starting, where is the requirement you are going to stop their vehicle from starting?"
Marta Modigliani, a lawyer representing the agency, said the .020 standard is what the National Transportation Highway Safety Board first adopted in 1992.
The agency thought it had this power because a different law gave it authority to set standards for breathalyzers that measure the BAC levels of drivers, she said.
'Behavioral modification tool'
State motor vehicle law sets the drunken driving standard on the road at .08 BAC.
The ignition interlock program uses the lower standard as a "behavioral modification tool" to encourage drivers not to use any alcohol prior to driving, Modigliani said.
The block means the driver cannot try to restart the car for at least another 20 minutes, which should allow the BAC to go down below .020 if no further alcohol is consumed, she said.
Once a driver does hit .025, it is a motor vehicle violation. This can result in the agency ordering the driver to remain in that program for an additional year, Modigliani said.
Those younger drivers, 18-21, are in violation if they register at the lower amount of .020, Modigliani said.
Rep. Edith Tucker, D-Randolph, said the different standard for younger drivers is another reason to lodge this objection.
"One device is trying to deal with two different age groups," Tucker said. "The basis for the objection is the lack of the authority of the .020 standard."
The committee objection does not block enforcement of this rule unless the entire Legislature were to adopt a resolution in support of that sanction.
State agency heads typically respond to these objections by supporting a bill in the next legislative session that brings the agency rule into compliance with state law.
Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield and the chairman of the rules panel, was the only one to vote against the objection.