State lawmakers ponder requiring ignition interlocks for drunk-driving offenders

The devices currently are installed by court order. Alcohol trade groups say they’re an invasion of privacy.

By Ken Bensinger, Los Angeles – Times Staff Writer
Published May 24, 2008

Should convicted drunk drivers be forced to pass an alcohol breath test before starting their cars? Should everyone?

For more than 20 years, special breathalyzers — hard-wired to a car’s ignition to prevent the vehicle from starting if alcohol is detected — have been installed under judicial order in the cars of repeat, or especially egregious, alcohol offenders. But in the last few years, six states have passed laws that require the devices, called ignition interlocks, in the cars of everyone convicted of driving under the influence.

Now, several more states, including California, are considering making interlocks mandatory for all offenders. A bill could pass the state Assembly next week. And a group of automakers has launched a major project with the federal government to develop advanced technologies that could someday make alcohol detectors a standard feature in all cars.

Advocates of interlocks, particularly Mothers Against Drunk Driving, say the devices could reduce the nation’s estimated 17,000 annual alcohol-related automotive fatalities, and thereby ease the burden that drunk driving places on the nation’s criminal justice system.

“We would like to have all 50 states applying it for all convicted drunk drivers,” said MADD Chief Executive Chuck Hurley. He said there had been no significant drop in alcohol-related fatalities in more than a decade. “This is the best way of keeping alcohol off the road.”

Critics, led by the American Beverage Institute and lawyers specializing in DUI defense, contend that ignition interlocks aren’t as effective as claimed and are a burdensome invasion of privacy. The institute represents restaurants such as Outback Steakhouse and Chili’s.

This month, the beverage institute ran full-page ads in USA Today and the New York Times showing mug shots of celebrities convicted of drunk driving, including Lindsay Lohan and Kiefer Sutherland, saying that interlocks should be used only for “hard-core drunk drivers.”

“This is an effort to educate the public about the threat of universally mandated ignition interlocks,” said Sarah Longwell, managing director of the institute.

Her group worries that laws requiring the devices for all convicted drunk drivers would discourage consumers from having a drink at dinner, costing the restaurant industry untold sums of money.

(Other alcohol-related trade groups, including the Beer Institute and the National Beer Wholesalers Assn., said they supported such devices. The Distilled Spirits Council said it was asked by the American Beverage Institute to participate in the current campaign but it declined.)

Beyond financial concerns, Longwell said, this is about individual liberties. “We’re trying to get people to look 10 years down the road and realize what this could mean.”

Susan Ferguson, program manager of the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, a five-year, $10-million project funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and automakers including Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Corp., said the research could very well mean alcohol detectors will become a standard option in every car.

To date, Ferguson said, no country has a universal ignition interlock mandate, and Sweden, the only one to attempt such a law, seems unlikely to get permission from the European Union.

“We don’t see any regulatory activity that would put this in all cars in the U.S.,” she said.

Instead, as-yet-undeveloped technologies, which could use retina scans or skin spectrometry, would be the kind of thing carmakers install as a non-mandated safety feature, like side air bags, and would be unnoticeable to the driver. However, once such a device is installed, its use probably would not be optional.

In the past, the public has been resistant to laws that require some safety equipment. In 1973, NHTSA promulgated a rule requiring the use of devices that would prevent cars from starting if the driver’s seat belt was not engaged. It was revoked amid public protest.

Last year Nissan Motor Co. revealed a concept car that incorporated an arrangement of alcohol sensors, including one built into the gearshift. “You wouldn’t even know it was there,” Ferguson said.

At the moment, that’s far from the case. As of August, there were 134,000 ignition interlocks employed in 45 states, a number that’s grown substantially since 2005, when New Mexico passed the first law mandating interlocks for first offenders.

The devices, manufactured by fewer than a dozen companies, are installed at the user’s expense and must be breathed into before the car can start.

The user leases the device for a monthly fee, typically about $65, and must take it to a technician every two months to get it recalibrated. The blood-alcohol sensitivity is generally set around 0.03%. That’s well below the legal limit of 0.08%; convicted drunk drivers are prohibited from driving with any alcohol in their blood.

If users don’t come in for device calibration, their car will eventually cease to start, even if they blow into the machine stone sober, said Corey Hickok, owner of ACS Interlock, a Santa Ana business that services the interlocks for about 300 customers every two months. And newer generations of interlocks prevent boozing on the road (or keeping the car idling in a bar parking lot) by requiring drivers to blow into the device at random times.

“It’s amazingly effective,” Hickok said.

Abram Garcia, director of operations for Smart Start Inc., which leases 30,000 interlock devices at a time, said his company had a new model that takes pictures of the driver breathing into the machine, saving the information on a chip, to prevent cheating. He estimates that the number of interlocks in the country could grow to 750,000 should all 50 states adopt laws requiring them for all DUI offenders.

California’s proposed law, which unanimously passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Thursday, is aimed at reducing the 1,300 alcohol-related fatalities on the state’s roads each year. It’s considered likely to pass the full chamber next week.

One opponent, Joshua Dale, executive director of the California DUI Lawyers Assn., says the statistics are far from clear on whether laws that require interlocks for first offenders actually reduce fatalities. “We’re probably going to see that cellphones cause more deaths than drunk drivers,” he said.