Ignition Interlock for All

The New York Times published this editorial last week advocating that all people convicted of impaired driving – including first-time offenders – be required to install ignition interlocks in their vehicles.  The editorial was prompted by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signing of legislation imposing such a requirement for several California counties.  Ignition interlock is a small electronic device wired to a car’s ignition system.  To start the ignition, the driver must blow into the device, which measures the concentration of alcohol in his or her breath.  If the amount of alcohol exceeds the established threshold, the car will not start. The driver also must submit breath samples at random intervals while driving.  According to Monitech, the only approved ignition interlock provider in North Carolina, these rolling retests are designed to deter drinking while driving as well as the ruse of leaving the car idling outside a watering hole.  If the driver fails a rolling retest, a vehicle alarm sounds for all the world to hear.

The Times editorial echoes arguments expressed by others, including Philip Cook, professor of public policy at Duke University:  one-third of impaired driving offenses involve repeat offenders and ignition interlock has demonstrated the potential to reduce this recidivism and thereby save lives. Indeed, LaDoris Cordell, a retired state court judge in California, wrote a compelling piece for Slate bemoaning the decades it had taken for her state to embrace this “common sense and basic safety” measure.  (Hat tip: Sentencing Law and Policy.)

Most states, including North Carolina, already require ignition interlock for repeat offenders and drivers deemed “high risk” due to a conviction for impaired driving based upon an alcohol concentration of 0.15 or more.  G.S. 20-179.3 mandates ignition interlock as a condition of any limited driving privilege issued to a person convicted of impaired driving based upon an alcohol concentration of 0.15 or more and permits a judge to impose ignition interlock as a condition of any limited driving privilege.  G.S. 20-17.8 requires DMV to mandate ignition interlock as a condition of restoring a driver’s license to a person convicted of impaired driving based upon (a) an alcohol concentration of 0.15 or more or (b) commission of a second impaired driving offense within seven years after a prior impaired driving conviction. The duration of the interlock requirement is one, three, or seven years, depending upon the length of the original revocation period. Pursuant to G.S. 20-28, DMV also must require ignition interlock as a condition of license restoration for persons convicted of driving while license revoked when the person’s license was originally revoked for an impaired driving offense and an assessment reveals that the person abuses alcohol.

According to the Times, 11 states now require ignition interlock for first-time offenders.  Professor Cook provides several reasons why ignition interlock has not reached its full safety potential. Judges don’t order installation, even when required. Offenders don’t install interlock even when ordered, and courts lack the resources or integration with their motor vehicle departments necessary to monitor compliance.  Finally, interlock is too expensive.  Monitech charges $70 for installation and requires that the first two months of the $60 per month equipment lease be paid at the time of installation. As a result, a person seeking to have an interlock installed in North Carolina must pay nearly $200 in up front costs.

Professor Cook opines that better oversight by and coordination among authorities would help interlock implementation, along with efforts to make the devices affordable. New Mexico, which reportedly has experienced a 65 percent decrease in impaired driving recidivism due to ignition interlock use, established a fund to help defray the cost for low-income people. Cook also advocates for tying interlock duration periods directly to substance abuse treatment requirements in order to extend the benefits of the device beyond the period of its installation.

The Times editorial concludes by suggesting that Congress condition federal highway money on states requiring ignition interlock for all convicted impaired drivers.  And though the Times does not go this far, it is certainly possible that ignition interlock technology in the coming decades will become safety equipment as standard as, say, seat belts and airbags.  Sound far-fetched?  In 2008, Volvo began manufacturing cars with fully integrated in-car “alcolocks” with the goal of preventing impaired driving.  To date, Sweden, which partially funded the technology’s development, is Volvo’s biggest market for the product.

Chime in with your thoughts and experiences on the efficacy of ignition interlock and its future.

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