If you judge by the headlines, it can be hard to figure what changed on Dec. 1, 2019, when New Jersey’s new DWI law took effect. Has the state gone soft on drunk driving or maybe taken away some of our rights? Here is a quick look in plain language at what has changed, with a little context about why it matters.

How are IIDs different under the new DWI law?

Under both the old law and new laws, some drivers must have a device resembling a breathalyzer ignition key installed on their car. The device is meant to measure your blood alcohol content (BAC) and if your BAC is too high your car will not start.

Under the old law, you had this ignition interlock device (IID) installed after you were convicted more than once of DWI, or if you were convicted for the first time with a BAC measured higher than 0.15%, which is nearly twice the legal driving limit.

Under the new law, all drivers convicted of DWI (meaning a BAC of 0.08% or above) must have the IID installed. That much is simple. When convicted of DWI, you get an IID. In fact, if you refuse to take a breath test, you also get an IID.

License suspensions often matter most

An IID installed on your car only matters if you try to drive the car. But the new rules for license suspension surely matter most to drivers and to people who wanted the new law.

The main message of the detailed new schedule is that people convicted of DWI now give up their license to drive for much shorter times. Although they can now go back to driving sooner, they always get an IID checking their breath and they get it for a longer time.

So, imagine you are convicted of DWI for the first time, and your BAC is between 0.08% and 0.10%. Under the new law, you will lose your license for 30 days, unlike the 90 days under the previous law. Also, unlike the previous law, you now get an IID installed in your car during that suspension and it stays there for 3 to 6 months after you get your license back.

The law changes the penalties for more serious convictions in similar ways, with shorter license suspensions and longer IIC installations. For example, a BAC of 0.10 to 0.15% means a license suspension of 45 days (not the 7 to 12 months of the old law). The IIC stays on for 6 to 12 months after you get your license back.

Why change the law?

Under the old law, people with a suspended license could not get to work, daycare, school, doctor’s appointments and the like. They often felt they had to choose between driving with a suspended license or dropping into a spiral of financial, health, family and other breakdowns.

It is no wonder that something like 50% to 75% of those with license suspensions drove anyway, according to a widely quoted board member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Not someone soft of drunk drivers, he claims IID are 67% more effective in avoiding repeat DWIs than merely suspending people’s licenses.