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Road Worrier: Push underway in NC to require ignition interlocks for all DWI offenders

Some day our cars will be so smart that they won’t start until they’re sure we’re sober.

Until then, we have the ignition interlock.

It’s a device that checks a driver’s breath for alcohol before letting the car engine start. North Carolina requires interlocks for drunk drivers who have been convicted of repeat offenses, who refuse to take a blood-alcohol breath test or who blow a .15 – nearly double the .08 limit that legally defines impaired driving.

More than 11,000 N.C. drivers have court-ordered ignition interlocks installed in their cars, the state Division of Motor Vehicles says. The device is like a personal breathalyzer.

The driver must blow into a tube before starting the car and again, at random intervals, while driving. If one puff of breath carries a blood-alcohol concentration above the threshold set for the device, the car won’t move.

Now there’s a push in the General Assembly to require ignition interlocks for everybody convicted of DWI – including first-time offenders.

Is this a radical idea? Not in 26 other states, where it is the law.

Ignition interlocks don’t replace license revocations. They are used to enforce alcohol restrictions for drivers who are granted limited privileges – usually to go to school or work – while their licenses are revoked, and after the revocation ends.

A first-time offender who blew a .08 will lose his or her license for a year, then be allowed to drive again with an alcohol limit up to .04. Under similar House and Senate bills filed earlier this year, the ignition interlock requirement would be added to make sure the driver complies with that .04 limit.

Here are three arguments members of the General Assembly will hear Tuesday when volunteers for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, dressed in red, descend on the Legislative Building to make their case for more ignition interlocks:

▪ Taking away the driver’s license for DWI offenders, by itself, doesn’t work. They don’t stop driving, and they don’t stop drinking. More than 40,000 North Carolinians are convicted each year of driving while their licenses are revoked.

“Fifty to 75 percent of these people with suspended licenses continue to drive,” said Sen. Josh Stein, a Wake County Democrat. “And they drive drunk at a higher rate, because there is not an interlock to stop them from driving their cars.”

Stein and two Republicans are sponsoring Senate Bill 619 to require ignition interlocks for all DWI offenders.

▪ Drivers with just one DWI conviction are no less dangerous than repeat offenders.

“The (Centers for Disease Control) has found that an individual drives impaired 80 times before they’re ever caught,” said LaRonda Schenck Scott, MADD’s state executive director. “Every time a person may be receiving a first conviction for DWI, we know it’s highly unlikely it’s the first time they’ve ever driven impaired.”

Stein’s Senate legislation and House Bill 877, a related bipartisan proposal, also would require interlocks for drivers under 21 found guilty of driving after drinking (a blood-alcohol level of .04), even if they aren’t impaired.

The bills would not change the time a DWI offender must use an interlock: a year for a driver whose license was revoked for a year, three years for a revocation of four years, and seven years for a permanent revocation. Scott estimates that between 2,500 and 10,000 additional drivers would be required to use ignition interlocks.

▪  Alcohol-related deaths and arrests are declining faster in states that require interlocks after every DWI conviction. MADD says drunk-driving deaths dropped more than 35 percent after similar laws were adopted in Arizona, New Mexico, Louisiana and West Virginia.

Ignition interlocks are expensive for the driver – $2.50 a day for each of the household cars available to a convicted DWI offender. The new legislative proposals would set up funds to help cover the cost for indigent drivers.

It’s not impossible for a determined drinking driver to thwart the device, especially with help from another. And some studies have shown that the benefits in reduced drunk driving begin to wear off after the driver is allowed to quit using the interlock.

But car makers are working with safety groups and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to develop comparable technology for routine use in American automobiles – much like the safety options available now that keep drivers from veering out of their lanes or rear-ending other cars.

A demonstration in Washington this month of the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety featured prototypes that use infrared technology to test a person’s breath or touch to measure alcohol in the blood and then decide whether it’s OK to start the car.

“If they offered that on a car I could get for one of my kids, I would do it,” Stein said. “Where we can employ technology to save people’s lives, we should do it. Our goal should be to get as close to zero drunk-driving fatalities as we can.”