STAMFORD -- Convicted drunken drivers will get back on the road sooner but be required to equip their cars with online Breathalyzers to test their sobriety before they start their ignitions under a measure passed by both houses of the General Assembly last week.

"This is a major shift of philosophy from using suspensions to trying to make sure drivers are trained to change their behavior," state Rep. Gerald Fox III, D-Stamford, chairman of the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee, said.

Under the proposal which would take effect in January if signed into law by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, first-time offenders would be required to install "ignition interlock" devices for a year and second-time offenders for three years.

The proposal also would cut both the minimum license suspension of one year for first-time offenders and three year suspension for second-time offenders to 45 days. It is part of a larger bill proposed by Malloy which includes a variety of criminal justice reforms including an early release program for inmates.

The bill passed the state House by a vote of 90-56 last Tuesday, and the Senate by a vote of 21-14.

Janice Heggie Margolis, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the devices keep drunk endrivers from getting behind the wheel while giving offenders significant relief from the economic hardship usually caused by a lengthier suspension.

A study by her group found that 50 to 70 percent of those convicted of drunken driving continue to drive without a license.

"This is a real win for public safety and reducing drunk driving," Margolis said. "The bottom line is it allows people to continue doing what they need to do, whether it is going to work, taking their children to soccer, getting their groceries, but they just can't do it drinking and driving."

The devices, which will be installed by private firms and monitored by the state's Department of Probation, cost about $100 a month, said Mike Lawlor, the governor's criminal justice secretary.

The on-board Breathalyzers prompt drivers to blow into a tube for five seconds, preventing the car from starting if it registers a blood alcohol level higher than that designated by the machine. Periodically, the device will prompt the driver for a new sample during a trip to verify they are not consuming alcohol.

The law stops short of imposing the devices on the cars of those participating in the state's pre-trial education program, a one-time program often granted to first offenders, though Heggie-Margolis and Fox said expanding to include those offenders in the ignition interlock program is a goal for future sessions.

"This is already a large and very significant step but the plan would be to ultimately include them," Fox said. "It would be too much to add those people now."

In downtown Stamford early Wednesday evening, Earl Ferris, of Stamford, was dining at Tigin Restaurant on Bedford Steet. He said he was in favor of requiring the devices on everyone who is convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol.

"It just means they have to blow into the tube before they start the car," Ferris said. "It doesn't sound like a huge deal."

At Bradford's Grill and Tavern, Gerald Watts, of Stamford, said he thinks the expanded imposition of ignition interlock devices reflects out-of-tune drunken driving laws that provide disproportionate punishments for anyone whose blood alcohol content exceeds the current 0.08 blood alcohol content limit.

Watts said that 0.08 blood alcohol content is not an accurate measure of intoxication and in some cases is disproportionately low, putting too many drivers at risk of arrest.

"Whether it is one drink or two drinks, the true measure is whether it is excessive," Watts said. "If your girlfriend has two glasses of wine at dinner is she 0.08? Probably. Is that driving drunk? Anybody who goes to a sports bar has a beer."

State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, who voted against the wider criminal justice reform bill said among the facets of the early earned release program included in the legislation that she opposes is a measure to allow the Correction Department to commute the balance of prison sentences for convicted drunken drivers to home confinement.

Boucher said she also questions the deterrent effect the ignition interlocks will have on drunken drivers, who can subvert the law by either getting someone to blow into the equipment or borrowing someone else's car, Boucher said.

"We see it time and time again that too many drunk drivers get in their cars again when they are completely drunk, 5, 6, or 7 times," Boucher said. "There is an unlimited amount of times you can get caught."

Heggie-Margolis said that license reinstatement based on conditional use of the devices at the very least provides grounds to punish convicted drunk drivers found flouting the law.

"There is a way around everything," Heggie-Margolis said. "We hope and we are strongly optimistic that through the monitoring of these devices during probation they will be able to do the things they need to do and it will prevent them from drunk driving. That's what it is really about."

Staff writer Martin B. Cassidy can be reached at martin.cassidy@scni.com or at 203-964-2264.