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Newest DUI strategy: Your car won't start

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DUI sobriety test Breathalyzer

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is recommending harsher laws to penalize impaired drivers.

On Dec. 11, the five-member board unanimously urged all states to adopt an ignition-interlock requirement for those convicted of impaired driving. The devices prevent a motorist with measurable alcohol on his or her breath from starting a car. Currently only 17 states mandate their installation after a first-time DUI conviction.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) believes the technology can do what state laws, public opinion and stern car insurance penalties have not: Keep first-timers from repeating their offenses.

While drunken-driving laws across the United States have changed radically since MADD's founding in 1980, progress stalled in the mid-1990s.

"Initially, states focused primarily on either repeat offenders or first-time offenders who had a very high blood alcohol content of 0.15 or 0.20," says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

MADD, IIHS and other groups were pushing hard on many fronts, encouraging police, lawmakers and courts to:

  • Impound and even sell convicted drunken drivers' vehicles.
  • Revoke drunken drivers' licenses for longer periods.
  • Toughen penalties for first-time offenders, including mandatory jail time.
  • Require convicted drunken drivers to use an ignition interlock device, a piece of high-tech auto equipment mean to prevent a drunken driver from operating a vehicle.

Five years ago, proponents of stiff punishment for drunken-driving offenses decided to recalibrate their approach, says Frank Harris, state legislative affairs manager at MADD. They stepped back to see what worked.

By far the best results came from ignition interlock devices. That's why safety advocates have put most of their recent energy into making sure drunks can't start their cars.

An ignition interlock device is an in-car Breathalyzer. The driver blows into a device the size of a chunky mobile phone. If a measurable amount of alcohol is detected, the car simply won't start.

You can't drive drunk if you can't drive

Data like these are what persuade the advocates:

  • New Mexico's 6-year-old law requiring ignition interlock devices for all convicted drunken drivers, including first-time offenders, is credited with a 35 percent reduction in drunken-driving deaths.
  • Arizona, with a similar law, has reduced drunken-driver deaths by 46 percent since 2007.
  • The Centers for Disease Control recently reviewed research on interlock devices and concluded they reduce re-arrest rates by 67 percent. The CDC now recommends the devices for every convicted drunken driver.

Since states make the drunken-driving laws, McCartt and Harris say, the push now is to convince every legislature to require every single person convicted of drunken driving to use an ignition interlock device for at least six continuous months.

Such laws would apply to everyone convicted of driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent or more. There would be no exceptions, not even for first-timers.

"From MADD's perspective, as long as that offender is learning to drive sober and the car is not being driven drunk, then the role of the ignition airlock is effective," says Harris.

At this point, only a small proportion of convicted drunken drivers actually ends up using the devices, says the U.S. Department of Health's Task Force on Community Preventive Services.

Even though most states use interlocks, they require them only under certain circumstances – for example, with a particularly high blood alcohol count, or on a second conviction. . (You can see your state's penalties--and calculate your own safe-driving limit--with CarInsurance.com's What's Your Limit? tool)

Today, 17 states -- Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington -- require ignition interlock devices for every convicted drunken driver.

Car insurance won't pay the bill

As you'd imagine, wily drivers try to fool ignition interlock devices, getting others--even children--to blow into the device for them. They try using canned air and other evasions.

But device makers keep improving the technology. Devices now include "running retests:" Drivers are periodically required to pull to the side of the road and submit to another test within a brief time span. If a driver flunks the retest, the car keeps running – it would be dangerous to stop it on a highway--and the horn honks and the lights flash to summon police. 

You not only blow into the device, but also pay for the privilege. Private companies usually provide the services. Installation can cost as much as $200, and monthly fees range from $50 to $100.

The cost of an ignition interlock device isn't covered under your car insurance policy--which, of course, you'll be paying more for as well. Analysis of rates pulled through CarInsurance.com's car insurance comparison tool suggests you should expect your insurance rates to double. Surcharges for a drunken-driving conviction do vary widely from state to state and even more so from insurer to insurer.

Although makers of ignition interlocks have proposed otherwise, no insurance company offers a discount for installation of a device.

How about some old-fashioned jail time?

Despite the apparent effectiveness of interlocks, many other tactics still are in use. They include:

License suspension and jail time. In all states but Wisconsin (where it's a traffic ticket), driving while intoxicated is a crime. Officers make 1.4 million DUI arrests each year, says MADD. Every state defines drunken driving as having a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more. In all states and Washington, D.C., it's illegal to buy alcohol before age 21 and the legal blood alcohol limit is lower for teens--0.02 for drivers under 21 vs. 0.08 for those over 21.

But beyond that, penalties – and their application – diverge a lot. Some states let you refuse a Breathalyzer test and submit instead to having your license revoked. Some mandate jail time, even for first-time offenders, but in practice offer diversion programs with alternative penalties like community service, monitoring, treatment or license revocation. (See "What happens if you refuse a Breathalyzer.")

Vehicle seizures. Some states allow communities to seize – and sometimes even sell--vehicles belonging to people convicted of driving drunk. Stiff impound fees and penalties must be paid to redeem the vehicle. But the approach isn't catching on, Harris said, probably because exceptions--other family members need to drive, for example--make the programs difficult to enforce.

Special license plates. A few states assign special vehicle plates, or a series of license-plate numbers, to convicted drunken drivers. Ohio uses red and yellow plates different from other state licenses on vehicles that have been impounded for drunken driving. Georgia and Minnesota use special plates on a limited basis. Oregon and Iowa have experimented with similar programs that aren't currently active. Special plates aren't a widely used tactic. 

The bottom line, say interlock advocates, is that even when jail time is served, it doesn't teach the convicted person how to drive sober. It is hoped that ignition interlock devices will do so.

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