Should All Convicted Drunken Drivers Have Alcohol-Detection Devices in Their Cars?

This week California became one of the few states in the nation to require some of its first-time drunken driving offenders to install alcohol detection technology in their cars, a move advocates for the devices hope will spread to the rest of the country.

But opponents of the in-car breathalyzers don't believe first-time offenders should be punished to the same degree as habitual drunken drivers, saying alcohol detection devices should only be installed in the worst-case scenarios.

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Anti drunk driving groups ,like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, disagree.

"The single best way to get drunken drivers off the road right now is to get interlock ignition devices in the cars of all convicted drunken drivers," said Chuck Hurley, the CEO of MADD.

"We expect California to become a model for the nation and that for all 50 states to have similar laws mandating first-time convicted drunken drivers to have the devices installed in their cars in the next three to five years," said Hurley.

An alcohol ignition interlock requires a driver to blow into the device and register a blood alcohol reading that is below a predetermined level. If the driver exceeds the level, the vehicle will not start. Data recorded by the device is also uploaded to the driver's Department of Motor Vehicles or to a court system, depending on the law.

California's pilot program, signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger Sunday, will require interlock devices in cars of first-time offenders in four counties, including Alameda, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Tulare, beginning next summer. The success rate of the trial will determine whether additional legislation will be proposed that would expand the law to the rest of the state.

While the majority of states permit the use of interlock ignition devices for repeat drunken driving offenders, only 11 other states require, with a few exemptions, the interlock devices to be installed in cars of first-time offenders.

MADD Supports Ignition Locks for First-Time DUI Offenders

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 11,773 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes in 2008, accounting for 32 percent of the total motor vehicle fatalities in the U.S.

Just last weekend, an 11-year-old New York girl was killed and two others were injured when they were thrown from a car driven by a mother who police say had more than double the legal blood alcohol level.

And in July, Diane Schuler, 36, killed eight people including herself when she drove the wrong way down a New York parkway. Schuler had a blood alcohol content of .19, more than double the legal limit of .08, according to the Westchester County medical examiner.

Hurley said MADD supports the interlock ignition devices for first-time convicted drunken drivers because more often than not, those drivers have driven while intoxicated prior to the instance when they were caught.

"The best science indicates that when people are convicted for the first time, it wasn't the first time they drove drunk. The average shows they've driven drunk 87 times before," said Hurley. "This isn't their first rodeo."

Opposition for a Mandate

But not everyone believes in mandating ignition locks for first-time offenders.

The American Beverage Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing restaurants and retailers, says that they agree interlock ignition devices are a good idea for perpetual drunken drivers, but says it's important for the legal system to evaluate the severity of the crime, based on the person's intoxication level.

According to Sarah Longwell, the spokeswoman for ABI, interlock devices should be mandated by law only for those who are repeat offenders or for a driver who's BAC exceeds 0.15.

"In those cases below .15, we're not against the interlock device, we're just against it being mandated," said Longwell. "We believe a judge should be able to look at the details of the case and determine what's best."

Longwell argues that the degree of punishment should reflect how far over the legal blood alcohol limit the driver went, much like speeding tickets increase for a driver depending on how many miles per hour they were driving over the designated speed limit.

"Individuals driving with a BAC of .08 may have only had one or two drinks and can be convicted for drunken driving," said Longwell. "There is a huge difference between an offender who has gotten in a car and is slightly above the legal limit and a driver who has had 10 drinks."

Are Interlock Devices Infallible?

In a letter by the ABI urging Schwarzenegger to veto California's interlock bill, Longwell said the devices' "fallibility" and "intrusiveness," combined with high costs of keeping a program running, should reserve the mechanisms for only the worst offenders.

Interlocks average at about $80 a month with an additional installation cost of about $100.

But cost, according to MADD's Hurley, should not be an issue for most drivers. "[The driver] could afford a habit and a car," he said. "The cost of the interlock is less than one drink a day."

Another complaint Longwell has with the devices is a so-called "rolling retest," which makes a driver blow into the device while driving. The rolling retest was developed to prevent drunken drivers from simply having a friend blow into the device.

Hurley said he knows of not one crash that has resulted from the retests and said that it's not distracting. "It does not interfere with driving, and the driver doesn't have to dial anything."

Philip Cook, a professor of public policy at Duke University who has researched alcohol control and prevention since 1980 and authored a book on the subject, "Paying the Tab," said that while interlock devices are effective when used, making sure they are installed is half the battle.

"The evidence shows that they're highly effective when they are actually installed," said Cook. "But there is slippage even if the law mandates they are installed.

"Judges don't always go for them, or they get various stories from defendants saying they don't have a car or they're not going to drive," he said.

Cook added that in order for the interlock devices to gain momentum around the country, the implementation and enforcement must be examined.

"Judges need to be sold on [the interlock ignition devices] and the court order has to have some sort of compliance system built in to make sure drivers are installing the devices," said Cook, who believes an interlock ignition device policy could be incorporated into the next federal highway bill if a contingency plan for making sure they're installed is developed.

Cook reminds that even when installation locks are installed, they are one day removed, another reason he believes the best way to prevent drunken driving is to combine any sort of sentencing measure with a treatment program.

"The devices are going to incapacitate people from driving drunk while they're installed, but when they're removed, the drivers often go back to the kind of record we'd see with someone who never used the device," said Cook. "These devices are not a cure."