Safer highways: One breath at a time
by Peter P. Youngers
In Hancock County, Indiana, the number of people arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) has dropped each year from an average of 641 for the four years ending in 1991 to a projected low of 368 when 1996 ends.
What is responsible for this 42% decline? Judge Richard Culver, the presiding judge in Hancock County, says the main reason fewer people are appearing in his courtroom for getting behind the wheel when they have had too much to drink is a device called the ignition interlock.
In Hancock County and in every other jurisdiction where these interlocks are widely used, the re-arrest rate for drunk driving declines markedly over a relatively short period of time. This important behavioral change offers a huge payoff for highway safety, since it is usually repeat DUI offenders operating after consuming large quantities of alcohol that kill, maim, and cause serious propery damage on the highway.
Ignition interlock devices (IID's) have been available for ten years. An IID, about the size of a CB microphone, is wired into the ignition system of a vehicle and will prevent the vehicle from starting until the driver delivers a clean (alcohol free) breath/air sample into the IID. If alcohol is present, the vehicle's ignition "locks out," and the vehicle cannot be started until a clean test is provided. The technology has improved to the point where bogus (non-human) air samples cannot be used.
In addition, periodic "random running retests" monitor the drivers' behavior once underway to ensure that alcohol is not being consumed while the driver operates the vehicle. The device records all events associated with operating the vehicle on an internal computer memory chip, such as all attempts to start (or failure to start), attempts to circumvent the device, etc. It also registers a BAC (blood alcohol concentration level) reading at the time the breath test was taken. All the recorded information can be printed and provided to the courts. In short, these devices prevent people from driving drunk.
Another plus for the IID: While the taxpayer gets the benefit of safer highways, the offender pays the bill. The entire cost of around $2 a day is paid for by the offender. If a person no longer drinks, he can afford the $2.
Unlike the most common sanction against DUI's (long term license suspension) by which society merely tells the offender he may not drive at all, the interlock prevents individuals from driving when they are the most dangerous and least likely to be concerned for society's opinions--when they have been drinking.
In comparisons made with license suspension, rearrest rates for persons using interlocks are significantly lower than suspension alone. Eighty percent of those with license suspension drive anyway and the "catch rates" for drunken drivers are extremely low. Estimates are that one can drive drunk hundreds of times without being stopped. We should also be mindful that the vast majority of drivers arrested for vehicular homicide have killed someone while driving on a suspended or revoked license. Moreover, those who drive with suspended licenses are also driving without insurance.
When we catch people driving with suspended licenses they are supposed to go to jail. Our jails are bulging at the seams. Suspended licenses account for more than a third of that jail population, with the expensive burden falling on the taxpayers. In short, our current policy isn't working.
There is a better idea. Before I outline what seems to be a better solution, I can submit some success stories beyond the experience of Judge Culver. There have been about 20,000 IID's installed across the United States in the last several years. In Oregon, there are 1,600 interlocks in use; California has 3,000; Texas has 2,000; Iowa has 1,500. Several other states such as West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Maryland and North Carolina are using them with overwhelming success. They are also being used in Washington on a limited basis.
Nearly all of the IID's used in Washington are in Kitsap County. After 150 installations, since February 1995, only one re-arrest for DUI has occurred in this state of an interlock equipped driver. Nationwide the re-arrest rate is less than 3 percent when interlocks are in use (vs. 25-30 percent for suspensions only).
Experience has shown that laws which modify people's behavior have a lasting effect on how people drive. It is for that reason that seat belt laws have had such a positive result in lowering the fatality and injury rate.
Conversely, jail and license suspension may punish people, but they have a limited effect on the problem drinkers' driving habits.
A legislative proposal to encourage greater use of ignition interlocks to help control drunk driving in Washington is being prepared by State Representatives Eric Robertson of Buckley (a State Patrolman), Debbie Regal of Tacoma, and House Minority Leader Martin Appelwick of Seattle.
The proposal being discussed will allow convicted drunken drivers to have their suspended licenses partially re-instated at an earlier date on the condition that they have an ignition interlock installed on their vehicle and that they drive only to maintain their employment, to seek medical treatment and to attend chemical dependency treatment and other pre-approved educational classes.
While the primary goal of the proposed legislation is to make Washington's highways safer, this novel approach holds out the promise that by providing an opportunity for these offenders to drive legally and soberly to activities which are beneficial to society--such as working to support their families and receiving treatment for their addiction--the downward spiral of these individuals and their families can be reversed.
Youngers is a longtime traffic safety activist, former State Chairman of MADD, and former President of the Washington State Council on Alcoholism. He now speaks around the nation on remedies for traffic safety problems and can be reached at P.O. Box 27251, Seattle, WA 98125.