The California Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 1046, a new bill which would require all drunk driving offenders to have ignition interlock devices installed in their vehicles. The ignition interlock bill is now under consideration in the Assembly.
In theory, ignition interlocks – which prevent a vehicle from starting if the driver fails a breathalyzer test – seem like a useful tool to combat drunk driving, which activist groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving have called an “epidemic.” But they run into a host of problems when applied too broadly.
The first is proportionality. SB1046 assigns the same punishment to all DUI offenders, even though problem drinkers pose the greatest threat on the roads. Roughly 70% of alcohol-related traffic fatalities are caused by drunk drivers with extreme blood alcohol levels – 0.15 BAC or higher. Many of them are repeat offenders with multiple DUIs on their record.
Whether someone registered a 0.08 BAC or 0.15 BAC is a key distinction. It can mean the difference between two drinks and 10. For example, a 120-pound woman can reach the 0.08 legal limit after two glasses of wine with dinner. Under SB1046, she could automatically be punished with an ignition interlock for behavior that, according to numerous studies, is equivalent to driving while talking on a hands-free cellphone.
Think about it this way: Should a driver going 5 miles over the speeding limit be handed the same fine as someone driving 30 miles over the limit? Going 30 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour residential zone doesn’t pose the same threat to society as someone going 55 miles an hour. Proportionality is designed to recognize these differences.
This is not to say low-BAC offenders should get off scot-free. But SB1046 treats different BAC levels like a distinction without a difference – applying a one-size-fits-all approach to a very nuanced issue.
The bill also overstates the impact of ignition interlocks when they are assigned. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that fewer than 30% of DUI offenders forced to install ignition interlocks actually do so. In some states, the compliance rate hovers around 20 percent.
As the Government Accountability Office explains, “monitoring DWI offenders requires substantial administrative resources. Officials from several states included in our study said they do not have sufficient resources to follow up with offenders to ensure ignition interlocks have been installed once they have been ordered by a court or sanctioned by a state department of motor vehicles.”
California is no exception. The state currently requires ignition interlocks in four counties as part of a pilot program: Alameda, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Tulare. Yet the Department of Motor Vehicles published a report in 2015 concluding that the pilot program “did not reduce drunken driving in general” – including first-time and repeat DUI offenders.
Expanding an already ineffective policy amounts to a waste of taxpayer dollars. The California Assembly should say so and reject SB1046.
Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute.