States Lock Out Drunk Drivers
By Vicki Ekstrom, Special to Stateline
Hawaii state Rep. Sharon Har (D) was waiting to make a left turn on a Sunday night in March 2007 when her car was hit by a Dodge Neon, landing her in the hospital for two days. The other car's 24-year-old driver had a .15 blood alcohol content, and had had his license revoked from a previous drunk driving offense. The legal alcohol blood limit is .08.
"He was going at least 55 on a local road, and there was nothing I could do," Har said. "Because it was dark and he was so drunk, I think he was mesmerized by my headlights. He just came straight at me."
After the accident, Har teamed up with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and sponsored a bill that requires convicted drunk drivers to install ignition interlocks - in-car breathalyzers that prevent cars from starting when the devices detect alcohol. The bill, which passed on May 2 and is expected to be signed by the governor, will go into effect in 2010.
With the law's passage, Hawaii becomes the 47th state to enact an ignition-interlock law, although the laws vary widely. Seven states with the strictest laws require ignition interlocks for all first-time convictions regardless of blood alcohol content, and California, Pennsylvania and New York are considering similar bills that would strengthen their existing laws. The seven states with the toughest laws are Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Mexico and Washington. Only three states - Alabama, South Dakota and Vermont - have no ignition interlock laws.
Hawaii's law orders the device for drivers with repeated drunk-driving convictions or for a one-time offense of a driver with at least a .15 alcohol blood limit. Those convicted for the first time with a level of below .15 can either get their license revoked or have an ignition interlock installed.
A special task force called for in Hawaii's legislation may decide to strengthen the law to require the device for all first convictions - even before it goes into effect.
Maine passed a similar - but weaker - law in March that allows repeat offenders to install ignition interlock devices instead of having their licenses suspended. Alabama is now considering a bill, Vermont is studying the device and many more states are working to make their laws stronger.
Most states require ignition interlocks only in certain circumstances and at the discretion of the courts. Laws in Colorado, Virginia and West Virginia passed this year just create incentives for convicted drunk drivers to install the devices, for example, in place of longer license suspensions.
MADD, citing studies that show most drivers who are pulled over for drunk driving have driven drunk 87 to 200 times before their first conviction, advocates for ignition interlocks for all first convictions, Hawaii Rep. Har said.
"We've got to find a way to prevent drunk drivers from getting in their cars," Glynn Birch, national president of MADD, said.
New Mexico was the first state to require the device for first convictions in 2005 when it had the eighth-highest alcohol-related fatality rate in the country. In the year after the law was enacted, drunk-driving fatalities fell 12 percent and the state dropped to having the 14th highest alcohol-related death rate, according to the DUI Attorneys Nationwide , an association that monitors the progress and litigates drunk-driving cases, and New Mexico's Department of Public Safety .
"It's compelling as a lawmaker when you meet with a family who has had someone die because of drunk driving," said Rep. Ken Martinez, sponsor of New Mexico's bill.
More than 17,000 deaths were blamed on alcohol-related crashes in 2006, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration . Ignition interlocks have been shown to reduce drunk driving by 45 to 90 percent, a 2007 report by the National District Attorneys Association found.
About 133,000 ignition interlocks are in use in the United States, the cost of which - $70 to $100 a month - is paid by the offender.
To prevent drivers from letting sober friends blow into the device to start their cars, most ignition interlocks have a "rolling retest," requiring a test within 5 to 15 minutes after an engine is started and randomly about every 45 minutes. The random tests give drivers six minutes to respond, allowing time for them to pull over to take the test if needed, according to Smart Start , an ignition-interlock company in California.
Unlike MADD, some oppose ordering the device for first-time offenders.
"Nobody wants drunk drivers on the road," said Sarah Longwell, director of the American Beverage Institute , an association representing some of the nation's most popular restaurant chains. "But we've got to make a distinction between someone who has a glass of wine with dinner and someone who's driving drunk."
While the association supports the use of ignition interlocks for "hard-core drunk drivers" - drivers with a blood alcohol level of .15 or higher or with multiple offenses - it opposes ordering the devices for first offenders and those with low alcohol levels, and says judges should have discretion.
Someone driving with a alcohol level of .08 or lower is no more dangerous than someone using a hands-free cell phone, Longwell said, while people who often have accidents have typically reached about .16.
She also said that speeding and negligent driving have been proven to be more dangerous than driving drunk. And yet, a device called "the governor" can be placed on cars to prevent them from going faster than a preset limit.
"Why don't we have mothers against speeding?" Longwell asked. "We glorify speed in this country."
Rep. Martinez of New Mexico says that installing ignition interlocks - or something like them - in all cars is the wave of the future.
"Auto makers are racing to find a non-intrusive alcohol test to install in cars," Martinez said, adding that drunk driving accidents are a problem and "it's our governmental obligation to try to reduce them."
"Every year there seems to be one of those big cases that makes you stop and start thinking about the solutions, and one component of the solution is looking into technology like ignition interlocks," Martinez said.