THE WATCHDOGS: Despite 4 DUI convictions, 5,085 Illinois drivers could be back on road — legally

SHARE THE WATCHDOGS: Despite 4 DUI convictions, 5,085 Illinois drivers could be back on road — legally

Illinois Rep. Elaine Nekritz pushed for the law that will allow four-time convicted drunken drivers legally back behind the wheel. | AP file photo

Despite being convicted of drunken driving four times and having their licenses revoked, supposedly for good, 5,085 Illinois drivers could be back on the road legally next year.

Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois General Assembly decided to give them another chance.

Under a new law that takes effect New Year’s Day, these multiple DUI offenders — 55 percent of them live in the six-county Chicago metropolitan area — can apply for a restricted driving permit so they can get to work, take their kids to school or visit a doctor, though only if their license has been revoked for at least five years.

They must prove they’ve been sober for three years. And their vehicles would have to be equipped with a “breath ignition interlock device” so their cars can’t start if they’ve been drinking.

“I don’t know if all of them will qualify,” said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, who pushed for the law to help a constituent who quit drinking but couldn’t land work because his license had been permanently revoked.

“I see it as a matter of redemption and safety because a lot of these people are driving anyway to provide for a family or themselves,” Nekritz said. “So we might as well make it legal. I believe people can change and turn their lives around.”

Nekritz found support from the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which have spent decades fighting for laws to crack down on drunk driving. Both urged Rauner to sign the bill.

“I don’t think it’s cause for alarm,” said Rita Kreslin, AAIM’s executive director. “This is for the individual that has proven to be sober. Many individuals whose driving privileges have been revoked continue to drive anyway.”

Nekritz has some concern that a four-time DUI convict given a restricted permit might get arrested again for driving drunk.

But she says that under the new law, “If you do get caught, you’re never eligible again.”

Also, Nekritz said, “I’m certain the secretary of state will be very careful handing out these restricted driver’s permits.”

Secretary of State Jesse White’s staff is preparing rules to issue the restricted driving permits to DUI offenders, who will be monitored by one of nine companies the state hires to supervise the breath ignition-interlock devices. The devices include a camera to photograph who blows into them. White’s office expects it will be several months before anyone with four DUI convictions can get a restricted permit.

His staff refused to release the names, ages and addresses of drivers who have four convictions for driving under the influence.

Of the 5,086 people who had had their licenses permanently revoked after a fourth DUI conviction, records show 2,842 live in the Chicago area and every county in Illinois has at least one person who’s had a driver’s license permanently revoked for multiple DUIs.

Fifty-eight percent of DUI offenders in Illinois are under 35. They are most often arrested on weekends while driving with a blood-alcohol level twice the .08 percent mark at which the law presumes drivers to be drunk. Seventy-seven percent of DUI offenders are men.

David Armstrong, 35, an instructor at the Rockford Rescue Mission, lost his license in 2009, after his fourth DUI conviction. He plans to apply for a restricted permit under the new law.

“For all my DUIs, it was just me in the car,” said Armstrong, a father of two who was 22 when he got his first DUI. “I never crashed into anybody. I never caused any property damage.

“My drinking pretty much ended my first marriage. I was drinking and reckless,” he said.

Under Illinois law, first-time offenders over 21 face at least a one-year suspension of their licenses, though they can get restricted driving permits to get to work, go to school or drive to a rehab clinic.

A few days before turning 26, Armstrong was arrested for a second DUI. In Illinois, a second DUI conviction means losing your license for at least five years — though these drivers also can apply for a restricted permit.

Armstrong was awaiting punishment for his second DUI when he got two more — both in 2008. A third DUI conviction means a 10-year license suspension. A fourth has meant the permanent revocation of driving privileges. Armstrong’s license was permanently revoked on Jan. 1, 2009, when he was 29.

“I have a 9-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son,” Armstrong said. “A restricted [permit] will allow me to take them to school. It will allow me to be a dad.

“Right now, I bus it or walk,” he said. “Opportunities would open up like crazy for jobs.”

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