By Sarah Longwell
California lawmakers are currently considering whether to expand a pilot program that mandates costly and ineffective ignition interlock devices for all drunken-driving offenders. Considering that a recent progress report of the pilot program’s effectiveness found its results “inconclusive,” there are serious reasons why legislators should be cautious about foisting this costly program on the entire state, as suggested in a Viewpoints article (“A good idea to fight DUIs,” Jan. 6).
Ignition interlocks, the in-car breathalyzers that prevent a vehicle from starting if its driver’s breath registers above a preset blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) limit, are expensive, intrusive and prone to technical failures. That’s why they have typically been reserved as a penalty for the hard-core DUI offenders who cause more than 70 percent of alcohol-related fatalities.
The American Beverage Institute and the hospitality industry have worked with traffic safety advocates to require these devices for the hard-core offenders, who benefit the most from such punishment. That is why we support the part of Sen. Jerry Hill’s bill that mandates repeat offenders have the interlock installed for a year or longer. However, this proposed law, SB 61, would force judges to order low-BAC first-time offenders to install interlocks.
Broadly mandated interlocks would cost the state millions in additional enforcement and offender follow-up without much additional benefit. Studies show that the devices are only a temporary fix – once the devices are removed, offenders who installed interlocks reoffended at the same rate as offenders who did not install the device.
SB 61 would also impose costs of a different kind. A 120-pound woman can reach the legal limit of 0.08 after two 6-ounce glasses of wine over a two-hour period. Under this new mandate, if she drives, she will automatically be punished with an interlock for behavior that, according to studies, is equivalent to driving while talking on a hands-free cellphone.
Mandating ignition interlocks for all DUI offenders is a one-size-fits-all approach that would eliminate a judge’s ability to distinguish between offenders who drive after two drinks and those who’ve consumed 10. It’s important that our laws remain proportional and that the punishment fits the crime.
Furthermore, this broad mandate pulls our focus and our resources away from ensuring that hard-core offenders are complying with interlock laws – currently only 30 percent of offenders comply with interlock orders. Expanding interlock mandates to marginal first-time offenders spread resources so thin that it becomes financially impossible to enforce these laws.
We need to marshal our resources and target hard-core drunks with legal mandates. Leave the marginal first-time offenders to the discretion of judges.