California to Test Drive DUI Ignition Locks in Pilot Program

Starting July 1, first-time and repeat DUI offenders in four big California counties will have to install in-car Breathalyzers.

by / June 15, 2010

California may become the latest state to mandate that driving under the influence (DUI) offenders have ignition locks in their cars that require alcohol-free blood alcohol levels before the engine starts.

Set to take effect July 1 and run through 2015, Sacramento, Alameda, Los Angeles and Tulare counties will require all first-time DUI offenders to have "ignition interlock devices" installed in their vehicles for at least five months. A second-time offender would be required to use the device for a year, a third-time offender for two years, and anything beyond that would require a three-year compliance period. If the first-time conviction involved injury, the device must remain in the offender's vehicle for a year, according to the law.

"Impaired driving continues to be the biggest cause of fatalities on our roadways," California Office of Traffic Safety Spokesman Chris Cochran said. "More so than other causes, alcohol is still the No. 1 cause."

It's a move that's been hailed by anti-drinking-and-driving advocates and the state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), which will evaluate the pilot program's effectiveness through a $345,000 grant from the state's Office of Traffic Safety -- which received the money via the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"We believe the technology is going to be one of the solutions to eliminate drunken driving," said Mothers Against Drunk Driving California Law Enforcement Program Specialist Silas Miers. "They can lead normal lives, pick kids up from school, go to work, but this stops them from getting on the road and endangering others while under the influence."

Seven states -- Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico and Washington -- have similar programs, run through their state DMVs that require offenders to use an ignition interlock device for a period of time prior to their license being fully reinstated, according to the California DMV. Nine other states -- Alaska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Nebraska, New York, Oregon and Utah -- have strong incentive programs, but don't go as far as the aforementioned seven states.

Private-Sector Blues?

Though the federal government is pitching in for the pilot's development, those convicted of a DUI must pay to comply. Offenders in the four pilot counties will have to cover the installation and maintenance costs -- about $100 for installation and a monthly lease rate between $50 and $80 -- which breaks down to about $2.50 a day, said Ignition Interlock Service Centers of California Vice President Taylor Reed.

But one key component that's been lost in the news, Reed said, is the potential loss to businesses like his, which gets roughly 95 percent of its customer base from convicted DUI offenders. Due to the program's language -- which says that fees can be reduced up to 90 percent depending on one's income level -- Reed foresees a huge blow to the ignition interlock industry.

"If you have someone able to afford to get intoxicated ... they should be able to afford the cost of the interlock, which is an average of $2.50 a day," he said. "It's kind of like, 'How the heck can we meet that requirement and stay in business?' and the answer is looking more and more like we can't."

But Reed supports the pilot program in theory, although he also thinks the time period for first-time offenders should be longer than five months. "Ultimately it's affordable technology to prevent drinking and driving and save lives," he said. "It is behavior modification, if there is enough time to do that."

For repeat offenders, this approach may be more effective than probation and temporary or lifetime license revocation, Miers said, as offenders can easily get around those requirements. "The reality is that people still drive their vehicles, whether there's a license or not and that's where we get into the realm of very risky behavior for repeat offenders," he said. "

Those that decide to continue risky behavior ... this takes away their ability to do that."

Cochran hopes to see recidivism rates fall with the devices' use and to see such technologies be required accessories in all vehicles, though the latter is a bit further from reality. "It could be an option sometime soon, and not a bad one, to keep everyone honest," he said.

But Cochran is such a supporter of the technology; he has one of the devices installed in his vehicle. "I know that one glass of wine will keep me in low ranges, but if I have more than one glass of wine, I'll check myself because I'm a lightweight," he said.

How the Technology Works

The ignition interlock device -- which must meet federal requirements -- is attached to the ignition of a vehicle, and prompts the driver to test his or her blood alcohol content through a portable breath tester, prior to the engine turning over. With California's pilot program, DUI offenders will also have to retest between three and 30 minutes after starting their vehicle, Reed said.

If the offender fails his or her test (by exceeding the .03 blood alcohol content limit prior to starting the car, and .05 during a retest) or fails to retest when prompted, those will count as "fails." When that person's ignition interlock device "fails" three times, the DMV is then notified, Reed said.


Karen Wilkinson

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.