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A new Virginia law will require thousands of first-time drunk-driving offenders to install blood alcohol testing devices in their cars that can lock the ignition. The measure is sparking debate in the state.

The law, which will take effect in July, will lead to a fourfold increase in the number of people who must use these ignition interlock devices, to more than 18,000. The fee will be about $480 for a typical six-month installation, The Washington Post reports.

Supporters of the measure include Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the Washington Regional Alcohol Program. They point to the state’s 274 alcohol-related road deaths and more than 5,500 injuries in 2010, calling the toll unacceptably high. MADD notes an interlock device is more effective than license suspension alone, as 50 to 75 percent of convicted drunk drivers continue to drive on a suspended license.

Some lawyers and public defenders say the devices are too severe a punishment for offenders at the legal blood alcohol limit of 0.08. They say the court system will be overburdened by cases, and drivers with lower incomes will be disproportionately affected by the installation fee.

Currently, Virginia law requires ignition interlocks only for repeat driving-under-the-influence offenders, or those who are convicted with a blood alcohol level of 0.15 or higher. About 16 states require people convicted of drunk driving to install these devices in their vehicles. Drivers must blow into a tube to verify they are sober before they can start the car.

Cars and trucks one day may have built-in blood alcohol detectors. The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety could be available within eight to 10 years, experts say. The technology could be built into a vehicle’s dashboard or controls. It would check a driver’s blood alcohol level, and would not start if the level were above the legal limit.

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