By Sarah Longwell
Florida has a drunken driving problem. In 2013, 676 individuals were killed in alcohol-related traffic accidents. While that’s a 4.3 percent decline from 2012, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. So what can Florida do to keep drunken drivers off state roads?
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) suggests that the best way to crack down on Florida’s drunken drivers is by expanding the state’s law requiring in-car Breathalyzers (known as ignition interlocks) in the cars of convicted drunken drivers to include low-BAC (blood-alcohol concentration), first-time offenders. But this sweeping expansion simply isn’t an effective way to reduce traffic deaths.
Right now, Florida law requires anyone convicted of a second, third, fourth, etc. offense to install the device on their cars along with those convicted of their first DUI who have BAC levels over 0.15 percent or drive with a minor as a passenger.
Targeting these repeat and high-BAC offenders makes sense. Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that more than 70 percent of all drunken driving fatalities are caused by drivers with a BAC of 0.15 or higher. And the average BAC of a drunken driver involved in a fatal crash is 0.16 percent — twice the legal limit.
In December, the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) issued a report on the state’s interlock law. Among the report’s findings: More than half of Florida drunken drivers required to install an ignition interlock fail to do so.
That means that more than half of Florida’s repeat and high-BAC offenders — the offenders who pose the greatest threat to traffic safety — aren’t complying with the state’s existing interlock law. Expanding interlock laws to include low-BAC, first offenders would spread the state’s ability to monitor and follow up with offenders woefully thin, allowing even more hard-core drunken drivers to slip through the administrative cracks without installing interlocks.
And while MADD and other traffic safety activists tout the ability of interlocks to stop drunken drivers from re-offending, they often fail to point out that interlocks are only effective at changing behavior while the devices are installed in offenders’ cars. Studies consistently show that once offenders remove the devices from their vehicles, they re-offend at the same rate as offenders who never installed interlocks.
Given Florida’s limited resources to ensure offenders comply with interlock orders, it makes little sense to mandate interlocks for the offenders least likely to re-offend.
As OPPAGA’s report points out, the re-offense rate for first offenders is very low and “recent studies suggest that ignition interlock devices may not provide significant reductions in recidivism for first-time DUI offenders.”
These first-time offenders have certainly broken the law and deserve to be punished. But just as the law treats drivers speeding 40 mph over the speed limit differently than those going 10 mph over the limit, drunken driving punishments must be proportional to the crime.
Consider that a 120-pound woman can reach the 0.08 legal limit by drinking just two glasses of wine. And studies show that driving with a BAC limit of 0.08 is equivalent to driving while talking on a hands-free cellphone. These drivers are impaired but don’t pose the same risk as someone with a BAC level of 0.15 or more.