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.

7 thoughts on “Ignition Interlock for All”

  1. What can we do to make this law for all states? Also why doesn’t the federal governement help with this. Sounds like the money that goes into this comes from the state.

  2. Aside from the fact that more federal mandates to the states right now is not necessarily popular, there is the fact that Monitech, the only authorized vendor of the device has some serious problems with their devices. They fail frequently, leaving people stranded or in jeopardy of losing employment and their policy of response to repair it gives them 24 hours to even look at it! I would support this measure only if the state opened up to other vendors with better reliability rates.

  3. My wife was convicted of DWI in NC and she will receive a court-ordered interlock device for one year following her 45 day suspension. She is in AA and has been in therapy for quite some time. Nevertheless, she accepts the punishment, and accepts she did a very dumb and dangerous thing, and she and I will respect the court-ordered process fully. The interlock device seems to have a great deal of public support, and statistically it seems to have had an impact as far as the supporters are concerned. Using the device seems to be another story. There seems to be a credible amount of user feedback over the accuracy of these devices, and the questionable fairness of how the DMV uses the data. It seems the issue is cut and dried if the device is accurate, and perhaps not so if the device provides inaccurate readings (mouth contaminants, mouthwash, toothpaste, etc.). We will report back based on our experience with this device to give you the perspective of the end-user.

  4. I am repeat offender. I have struggled with alcoholism for years in spite of treatment, incarceration and other consequences experienced as a result. I think ignition interlocks are a good solution to the problem for repeat offenders, however the legal system is trying to control use of the substance not just driving under the influence. If you have a bad blow on the device you are reprimanded by the system by receiving probation violation etc.,therefore encouraging cheating. Sobriety cannot be mandated but driving while intoxicated can be and should be enforced. Criminalizing addiction only exacerbates the problem by shaming persons who already struggle with a shame-based disorder. addiction is not an issue of morality or weakness. It’s time to remove the stigma and address this very widespread problem with compassion and support..


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