At last month’s State of the State Address, Gov. Bill Richardson spoke about how his administration has “thrown the book at drunk drivers.” Fatalities have dropped dramatically and New Mexico is rapidly becoming a national model for drunken driving policy. The governor deserves credit for having a vision and following through.
But the New Mexico model isn’t perfect.
In 2005, New Mexico became the first state to require ignition interlocks (in-car breathalyzers) for anyone convicted of drunken driving — even first-time offenders, regardless of the person’s blood alcohol concentration. Since then, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other activist groups have been peddling statistics about this policy’s effectiveness to convince other states to follow suit.
Remember Mark Twain’s description of “lies, damned lies, and statistics”? I’m betting it’s embroidered on a pillow somewhere at MADD’s headquarters.
MADD claims that in New Mexico “ignition interlocks are an average of 64 percent effective in reducing repeat drunk driving offenses.” This number comes from a study funded by the anti-alcohol Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and conducted by Richard Roth, deemed an “interlock crusader” by the Associated Press. Omissions and weak correlations run rampant in this research.
New Mexico’s DWI repeat-offender rate was already declining for over a decade before the 2005 interlock mandate took effect. And the overwhelming majority of offenders in Roth’s study — interlocked or not — never reoffended. (Nationally, once is enough for about two-thirds of drunken driving offenders.)
Perhaps most importantly, Roth’s study only covered a few months while an interlock was installed. Once it’s removed — and Roth concedes this — there is no lasting effect.
So interlocks don’t really change drivers’ behavior. Roth and his co-authors also admit that “it is not clear whether the reduction in DWI recidivism is associated with a reduction in alcohol-related crashes.”
MADD conveniently ignores this bottom-line finding, spreading the fiction that ignition interlocks caused a large reduction in New Mexico fatalities. Most recently, MADD credited interlocks for the 20 percent decrease in fatalities between 2007 and 2008.
But, it turns out drunken-driving fatalities declined in 43 states, not just in New Mexico and the handful of other states with interlock mandates on the books in 2008. In fact, the biggest decreases occurred in Wisconsin, Maine and Vermont, states that do not require interlocks for all DUI offenders. (Vermont doesn’t use the devices at all.)
Road-fatality statistics from 2008 don’t tell us much about drunken driving rates, or about the effectiveness of ignition interlock laws.
Lives saved on our roadways can be primarily traced to a faltering economy and high gas prices. Overall, Americans drove less in 2008 than in previous years. Less driving means fewer highway deaths.
We also know that more than two-thirds of DUI offenders in New Mexico never actually install an interlock, even though the law requires it.
Why? They either fail to appear in court, manage to win an acquittal, or tell judges they don’t own a car or don’t drive. And New Mexico’s abysmal 32-percent compliance rate is actually the highest in the entire country.
The American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) offers another reality check: “No state-including New Mexico which requires the use of ignition interlocks for all DWI offenders-has the infrastructure in place or the resources currently (or in the foreseeable future) to implement such a far-reaching requirement.” Further, according to the APPA, requiring interlocks for all offenders “is an unnecessary and costly response” because the devices are best suited “for the hardcore DWI offender — those with high blood alcohol content or a repeat offender.” We absolutely agree.
Interlocks are not a silver bullet as pro-interlock activists would have you believe; they’re just one tool of many. Richardson took office in 2003, two years before the interlock mandate became law. And his administration’s efforts have included a “DWI czar,” increased and intensified police presences, a “DrunkBuster” hotline, underage-drinking crackdowns, a DWI Victims’ Memorial, a change to the “six month rule” to allow more careful DWI prosecution, and a ubiquitous anti-DWI ad campaign.
All of these efforts have combined to make New Mexico’s roads safer for everyone. Assigning all the credit to the lowly ignition interlock is like giving the second-string punter credit for a team victory in the Super Bowl.
MADD should know better. Using bad stats to convince other states that harsh interlock laws will lower drunken-driving rates is dishonest. New Mexico’s success proves it.
Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute, in Washington, D.C., an association of restaurants committed to the responsible serving of adult beverages.