New tool to fight drunken driving in state

August 14, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Beginning next month, a new Maryland law will force anyone convicted of drunken driving twice within five years to install ignition interlocks that require a puff of alcohol-free breath to start a vehicle's engine.

The law requires a one-year mandatory license suspension before repeat offenders can even drive with an interlock, which must be used for a year. The law takes effect Sept. 30.

It was passed by this year's Maryland General Assembly and signed into law in the spring by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Critics say there are ways to circumvent the interlock - such as having someone else blow into the tube.

But advocates say interlocks are a useful tool in a society so accepting of alcohol and so dependent on cars.

"They're not a silver bullet. But the fact is if they're on the vehicle, they do protect public safety," said John Moulden, president of the Washington-based National Commission Against Drunk Driving.

Maryland is one of 41 states that have enacted ignition interlock laws in recent years to keep receiving federal highway safety monies, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Wendy Hamilton, national president of MADD, said the key to Maryland's law is that alcohol treatment is required along with the interlocks.

"All the research has shown that the longer the interlocks are on, with treatment, the less likely there is of a repeat offense," she said.

In Maryland, the Motor Vehicle Administration monitors 5,200 drivers who pay up to $65 a month for interlocks as part of a program that began in 1989.

"It's either that or lose your license," said Michael Conti, who has been convicted of drunken driving five times since 1986 and had interlock installed after a conviction in 2000. After successfully completing a year in the program, he was convicted again last year and again has interlock installed on his car.

Jane Valenzia, who manages the MVA's program, said if a motorist stopped for drunken driving refuses a roadside breath test, he may have his license suspended for 120 days or agree to use an interlock for a year.

For a second refusal, motorists face a one-year suspension of their driver's license or two years with the interlock.

If someone fails the breath test, the length of the suspension or the interlock requirement depends on the number of previous driving violations, she said.

The interlocks, marketed by four state-approved firms, range in size and shape. About the size of a cell phone, they fit on a dashboard and hook up to the ignition and record the date, time and distance of each trip. Breathing into the tube is required to start the car.

Once a month, the drivers must take their cars to one of 26 service centers in the state, where the travel information recorded by the interlocks is transferred to a computer and turned over to the MVA.

Valenzia said the travel information is checked to see if the driver has changed his driving habits or might be using another car.

"We know how far they have to travel to get to work and what their normal driving routine is," she said.

She said drivers with interlocks have their driver's licenses stamped with a code to alert police if they are stopped.

Valenzia said that of the 4,843 drivers who had interlocks last year, about 650 were removed from the program. Some quit, agreeing to a license suspension. But most were removed because they broke the rules and consequently had their licenses suspended, she said.

Valenzia said that a handful of drivers have been arrested over the years for drunken driving while on the monitoring program. One man was charged after he had his granddaughter blow into the tube for him.

"You have all kinds of people, and some of them think they can fool the system," Valenzia said.

The interlocks can detect a blood-alcohol level of .025 percent, a minuscule amount that will shut off an engine if someone takes cough medicine or uses mouthwash with alcohol, she said.

Participants are warned when they sign up for the program not to take medications or use mouthwash with alcohol when they get behind the wheel, Valenzia said.

Gerald Hanes, who agreed to use an interlock for one year after a drunken-driving conviction in July last year, said he forgot that warning and couldn't start his car for a trip to the dentist a few months ago because he had used some mouthwash. He called a 24-hour number provided by the interlock manufacturer and was told to wash his mouth out and try again in 20 minutes.

"It just made me a little late that one time," said Hanes, 62, of Frederick.

The interlocks also require random "rolling retests" that flash a light or emit a beeping sound to signal that the driver must blow into the tube to continue driving. The retests are intended to prevent someone else from starting the car, Valenzia said.

If a driver fails to blow for a retest, the car horn honks continuously.

Valenzia and other interlock supporters say they know drivers try to circumvent the law.

"There are no guarantees in life, but this is a good tool," said Hamilton, MADD's president.

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