After nearly a decade of activists working to pass a law mandating installation of ignition interlock devices (IID’s) in the cars of anyone convicted of a DUI, success appeared imminent — until a couple weeks ago.
Senate Bill 1046 has been positively flying through the Assembly — enjoying the kind of unanimous support reserved for feel-good legislation pushed by a group no one wants to oppose.
It’s almost as if Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and its allies in the Assembly hoped they could outrun the facts.
But last month, the California Department of Motor Vehicles released its “Specific Deterrent Evaluation of the Ignition Interlock Pilot Program in California,” which studied the efficacy of the interlock mandate in four California counties: Alameda, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Tulare. Much to the dismay of advocates, the DMV report did not advocate in favor of expanding the pilot program statewide.
The bottom line of the DMV report: Those who installed the devices had an increased risk of crash or fatal injury compared to those who did not.
That’s right: Instead of making the roads safer, a statewide ignition interlock mandate for all offenders would likely make drivers less safe.
It makes sense if you think about it. IID’s require the driver to not only blow into them when they start the car, but also undergo a “rolling retest” which occurs at random to ensure the driver didn’t simply have someone else blow into the device to start the car. But picking up the device when it beeps to complete a long breath test is a massive distraction — not unlike texting and driving.
But there are some in California who don’t want a small detail like public safety to get in the way of a feel-good agenda. MADD, along with the bill’s author State Senator Jerry Hill, are already looking for ways to discredit the DMV’s impartial findings.
Yet this is the second year in a row that the DMV evaluated the pilot program and refused to recommend expanding it. In 2015, the five-year pilot program was extended for an additional 18 months after the DMV found that “the IID pilot program was not associated with a reduction in the number of first-time and repeat DUI convictions in the pilot counties.”
Since proponents of expanding interlock mandates in California can’t point to empirical evidence that the law would have a net positive effect on traffic safety, they instead fall back on the fact that 26 other states have passed similar laws. What they don’t mention is how poorly the laws are working in those states.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association fewer than 20 percent of those ordered to get an interlock actually have them installed. The reason is that laws like the one proposed in California are an unfunded mandate, meaning there’s no money to ensure that offenders actually comply with the law.
That’s why ignition interlock mandates for all offenders is such misguided public policy. Over 70 percent of alcohol-related fatalities are caused by high-BAC and repeat offenders — hard-core alcohol abusers. California could save far more lives if it worked to reach 100 percent ignition interlock installation compliance among this target population, rather than expanding the mandate so widely that it is even more difficult to enforce.
But that wouldn’t serve MADD’s ultimate agenda of seeing alcohol-sensing technology installed in every car in America.
It may sound far-fetched, but MADD has long supported an ongoing federal program called DADSS (Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety) which has developed technology that can read a driver’s blood alcohol concentration level through touch technology in the steering wheel or ignition button. A drivable prototype was unveiled last year and engineers aim to have it on the market in approximately five years.
Thus, MADD is pushing hard to expand current ignition interlock laws. The more the current technology is normalized, the easier it will be to sell its more sophisticated progeny to legislators and the public.
But just because the DMV report doesn’t serve MADD’s ultimate goal, doesn’t mean we should ignore the findings.
Facts are stubborn things. And the fact is, interlock mandates for first-offenders aren’t the drunk driving panacea MADD wants them to be.
Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute.