- - Monday, March 7, 2016


Three months ago, a drunk driver fatally struck an on-duty Montgomery County, Md., police officer, Noah Leotta. To honor Leotta’s memory, traffic safety advocates and Mothers Against Drunk Driving are pushing Maryland lawmakers to mandate alcohol detection ignition interlocks for every convicted drunk driver, even first-time offenders with low blood alcohol levels. But such laws fail to effectively target the most dangerous drunk drivers.

Despite harsher penalties for drunk driving, widespread public education campaigns, and improved ignition interlock technology, the percentage of traffic fatalities caused by alcohol-impaired drivers hasn’t budged in more than 15 years. Each year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports alcohol is a factor in roughly 30 percent of all deadly traffic accidents.

Equally consistent is the percentage of drunk driving fatalities caused by extremely intoxicated drivers. Every year, drivers with blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels of .15 percent (nearly twice the legal .08 limit) or higher are responsible for more than two-thirds of all drunk driving deaths. These aren’t drivers who had a drink or two with dinner — to reach a .15 BAC limit, a 150-pound man would have to have roughly seven drinks over a two-hour period.

There’s a huge difference between driving with a blood alcohol concentration level of .08 and driving with a BAC of .15. A 120-pound woman can reach .08 with as little as two drinks, and studies indicate at that level she’s roughly as impaired as a driver using a hands-free cellphone. Yet talking on a Bluetooth device in Maryland remains legal even as activists push to require drivers one or two sips over the legal limit to pay hundreds of dollars to install these alcohol detection devices in their cars. The concept of proportionality in public policy is being totally dismissed.

Currently, Maryland law requires interlocks for first-time drunk drivers with BACs of .15 or higher and repeat offenders. Targeting the state’s ignition interlock mandate to these dangerous offenders is the best use of Maryland’s resources.

First, very few offenders comply with ignition interlock orders. Nationally, NHTSA estimates only 15-20 percent of all offenders legally required to install an interlock device on their cars actually do so. States simply don’t have the resources to ensure compliance. According to a recent study on ignition interlock laws by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), “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.”

If states lack the resources to ensure that the high-BAC and repeat offenders responsible for most drunk driving accidents are installing interlocks, stretching their resources even thinner by requiring thousands more offenders to install interlocks makes little sense.

These abysmal compliance rates are a huge deal. Research shows interlocks are only effective at reducing offender recidivism when they’re actually installed on an offender’s vehicle. Once the interlock is removed, convicted drunk drivers re-offend at the same rate as those who’ve never been required to install an interlock. Ensuring the most dangerous offenders comply with interlock orders, and extending the amount of time interlocks are on their cars, is the best way to stop them from reoffending.

Because so few offenders comply with interlock orders and the devices don’t change long-term behavior, there’s little evidence requiring interlocks for low-BAC, first-time offenders is effective public policy. The GAO’s study states: “Findings regarding the effectiveness of ignition interlocks for first time offenders are unclear, based on study limitations. For example, some studies that aimed to parse out effects for first time offenders found no significant effect.” That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of a policy that costs states millions of dollars each year to implement.

Despite the pleas of MADD, passing an all-offender interlock mandate isn’t a reasonable reaction to the tragic death of Officer Leotta. The man who killed Officer Leotta wasn’t a low-BAC, first-time drunk driver. He had twice before been arrested for drunk driving, and in addition to drinking too much alcohol, he admitted to smoking marijuana (which is still illegal in Maryland). Interlocks can’t test for the presence of marijuana, though the combination of alcohol and marijuana significantly increases impairment.

A law treating all drunk driving offenders — even those just barely over the .08 limit — exactly the same doesn’t allow judges to offer a proportional punishment to offenders’ crimes. Maryland lawmakers shouldn’t allow an emotional response to tragedy to trump the facts and statistics about drunk driving. Reserving interlocks for high-BAC and repeat offenders continues to be the best way to keep dangerous drunk drivers off our roads.

• Richard Berman is president of Berman and Co., a Washington public affairs firm.



Click to Read More

Click to Hide