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Will Ignition Interlock Devices End Drunk Driving?


MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) has been very successful over the past two decades in using their considerable influence with legislators and federal agencies to get new laws passed designed to curtail or eliminate drunk driving.  Among these have been dropping the blood-alcohol level to .08%; per se laws (illegal to drive with over .08% even if sober); "zero tolerance" laws (.01% standard for drivers under 21); immediate license suspension by the officer.

None of these have fulfilled the promise of reducing DUI in the United States.  In fact, alcohol-related fatality rates have remained relatively stable since 1992.  

May 25, Washington.  Reuters  –  Alcohol-related deaths on U.S. roads rose to their highest level in 14 years in 2006, while the overall number of people killed in traffic crashes declined slightly but still topped 43,000, according to preliminary government estimates Friday.

The Transportation Department said that drunken driving deaths rose 2.4 percent to 17,941 after a slight decline in 2005. It was the highest level since 1992 when 18,290 deaths were reported.

Three years ago, Madd unveiled its latest campaign to end drunk driving with great fanfare:

WASHINGTON (November 20, 2006) — In a bold new effort designed to eradicate one of the nation’s deadliest crimes, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) today launched its national Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving, which aims to literally wipe out drunk driving in the United States…

That’s right: end drunk driving. How? Simple: with technology — primarily by requiring first offenders to install ignition interlock devices (IIDs) in their cars. Yet another naive and simplistic solution to a complex problem.

The following is an article I was invited to write in reply, published in Business Week:

Technology Alone Won’t Tackle Drunk Driving


Government statistics show that alcohol-related fatality figures have been essentially unchanged for the past decade — despite lowered blood alcohol levels, Draconian penalties, DUI roadblocks, legal presumptions of guilt and other assaults on the Constitution.

Recognizing a failed effort, MADD has unveiled with considerable fanfare its latest weapon in the “War on Drunk Driving”: the ignition interlock device (IID). The device is not new, of course: it has been in use in many states for several years (with notably little success) and versions are being developed by Saab, Toyota and Nissan for possible installation in future car models as standard equipment. There are, however, two basic reasons this newest “answer” to the drunk driving problem will fail as well.

First, IIDs are inaccurate, unreliable, easily circumvented, dangerous — and ineffective. Unlike the infrared spectroscopic breath instruments used by law enforcement, or even the less sophisticated handheld field units used by officers (deemed too inaccurate to be used in evidence), IIDs are primitive devices that are mounted along with the ashtray in the car’s dashboard — and subject to contaminants, cigarette smoke, vibrations from the road, etc. In any event, an intoxicated person could easily have someone else breath into the device, or simply borrow or rent antoher car. And because IIDs generally require periodic retesting of the driver while the car is underway, the risk from driver distraction alone poses a very real danger.

But how effective are IIDs in achieving MADD’s goal of lowering fatalities? In a study entitled An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Ignition Interlock in California: Report to the Legislature of the State of California, the California DMV concluded:

The expected effect that an IID order/restriction issued by the court would result in a lower rate of subsequent DUI convictions was not observed. (p. 7)

The risk of a subsequent crash was higher for drivers installing an IID, compared to drivers not installing a device; drivers installing an IID had a risk of a subsequent crash that was 84% higher than drivers not installing an IID. (p. 10)

The results of this outcome study clearly show that IIDs are not effective in reducing DUI convictions or incidents for first DUI offenders … Because there is no evidence that interlocks are an effective traffic safety measure for first DUI offenders, the use of the devices should not be emphasized. (p. 22)

The second reason the IID will fail is that, as with other attempts to bring down the alcohol-related fatality figures, the IID does not address the underlying problem.

The risk of DUI-caused fatalities lies not with the social drinkers who represent the vast majority of drivers over .08%, most of whom are in the .08% – .15% range. My own experience from prosecuting and defending thousands of DUIs is that those who cause injury and death on our highways are usually fairly identifiable: the problem alcoholic. This client can usually be identified by two factors: (1) the blood-alcohol level is very high, commonly over .20%, and (2) he/she is a recidivist — that is, a repeat offender.

Thus, the first step is to identify the danger — the relatively small number of “problem drinkers” — and to stop filling our jails with social drinkers.

The second step is to decide what to do with this problem drinker/driver. Our present approach is purely punitive. But if we simply throw the alcoholic in jail for 6 months, what is accomplished? We’ve made the streets safe from him for 6 months — and on the day he gets out, he drives to the nearest bar and resumes his drinking. We have made no real progress: Our jails continue to burst at the seams, and the fatalities continue at their predictable levels.

I would suggest a rehabilitative approach rather than a punitive one, an approach which would actually take a step toward solving the problem rather than waiting for the vicious cycle to begin again. By now, most experts recognize that alcoholism is a disease, not a choice (the “choice” to drive, of course, is made by an inebriated person, and thus a Catch-22). And you don’t treat a disease with incarceration.

We recognize legal incapacity due to mental disease: the plea or verdict is “not guilty by reason of insanity”. The defendant is not simply set free, but is hospitalized for treatment of the disease until he is well. Why not treatment for problem drunk drivers who suffer from the (largely genetic) disease of alcoholism? In other words, why not recognize a plea of “not guilty by reason of alcoholism”? Again, this does not mean he “gets off”: he will be ordered to undergo rehabilitative therapy. In serious cases, mandatory commitment to a rehabilitative facility may be appropriate.

The choice is fairly simple: Do you want vengeance or safety? Would you prefer to have a chronic drunk driver off the road for a few months — or in control of his disease?

Taylor is a former prosecutor, Fulbright law professor, and author of the standard text “Drunk Driving Defense,” 6th ed.; his 11-attorney California DUI law firm is the largest of its kind in the nation.

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