Back-Seat Driver: Blow-in-a-tube device may foil drunken drivers

This story is taken from Sacbee / News.

By Tony Bizjak – tbizjak@sacbee.com
Published 12:00 am PDT Monday, April 7, 2008

With drunken driving deaths in California rising, lawmakers and law enforcers are turning to a little black box as a weapon against drunken driving.

It’s called an ignition interlock device – basically, a breathalyzer with a tube you blow into.

Interlock devices, when installed on a dashboard, won’t allow a car to start if you have more than a tiny amount of alcohol in your breath.

This week, the California Highway Patrol, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and 10 legislators will present a bill to increase use of the interlock device.

Assembly Bill 2784 would require first-time drunken drivers to use the device for five months after conviction.

Currently, the first-timer loses his or her license for a month, then can only drive to work or alcohol treatment during the next five months.

Law officials say they aren’t fooled. A lot of those people use their car for other purposes, and more than a few still drink and drive.

Ignition interlock devices have been around a long time, but in California, they are only used occasionally on repeat drunken drivers.

The new bill brings ignition interlock front and center to the state’s war against drunken driving.

Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, said he likes the fact that the device disciplines a first-time offender – no drinking and driving – but allows him more freedom. “With interlock, you can drive anywhere you want,” as long as you don’t drink, he says.

“It protects the motoring public, it protects the individual, and it protects the individual’s family,” CHP Assistant Chief Scott Howland said.

But the device is not perfect.

Older interlocks can mistake turkey, some bread and even Altoids for alcohol. Newer ones don’t make those mistakes, manufacturers say.

Some people used to fool the device by blowing in compressed air. That doesn’t work with new models: With some, you need to inhale as well as exhale. In others, you have to hum while you exhale. The machine recognizes throat vibrations.

What about drunks who get someone else to blow for them?

CHP’s Howland says the problem is more imagined than real. If you are out drinking, the people with you often are drinking too, so they won’t be able to get the car started either.

If a companion is sober, Howland says, that brings up a logical question: Wouldn’t that person just drive instead of the drinker?

You’d hope so. Officers can cite a nondrinker if he blew into the breathalyzer for a drunken friend. Some breathalyzers now have cameras.

What if you start your car while sober, then drink as you drive? It turns out the pesky little machine doesn’t just test you once. Five minutes into your drive, and at irregular intervals afterward, it tests you again. If you fail, the black box records the failure. You’ll be nabbed later when officials download the recorder’s data.

What if you disconnect the box? Well, it records that too. State law requires people with mandated interlock devices to take them in to a certified shop every month or two for recalibration. The recorder info is checked, and authorities are notified of failures or tampering.

The boxes, Assemblyman Feuer says, are a technology whose time has come.

The trick, however, is figuring out what it will take to keep that person driving responsibly when the little black box is removed.