Mandatory interlock saves lives

Our view: Requiring the devices for first-time drunk drivers would make our roads safer

March 01, 2010

In Maryland, about 165 people are killed each year in drunk-driving accidents. Lawmakers have the power to reduce that carnage by one-third with little cost to taxpayers and using technology that's proven to be effective. Why is there any hesitation?

At issue are ignition interlock devices that force drivers to prove their sobriety before starting their car by blowing into a breathalyzer. Maryland already has them, but current law leaves it to a judge's discretion to determine whether offenders install them. The result? It's required only in a small fraction of cases. Legislation scheduled for a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday would make ignition interlock mandatory for all convicted of driving under the influence -- even first-time offenders sentenced to probation before judgment, or PBJ.

That may sound harsh, but only to those willing to look the other way from the continuing tragedy of so many dying at the hands of drunk drivers. When New Mexico adopted a similar policy, drunk-driving fatalities fell by more than 30 percent. At least 10 other states have chosen to make ignition interlock mandatory. Representatives of the liquor industry have attacked the effort as a "distraction" and suggested that lawmakers would be better off targeting repeat offenders or only those caught by police with a particularly high blood alcohol level.

But going after extreme and repeat offenders alone won't solve the problem. Studies show those who are charged with a first DUI violation are rarely genuine first-time offenders. They've likely to have had too much to drink before driving dozens of times -- it's merely the first time they've gotten caught.

How much hardship do ignition interlocks cause? Under the legislation promoted by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other anti-drunk-driving advocates, first-time offenders would only have to drive with the devices in their cars for six months at a cost to them, including installation and monitoring, of perhaps $500. Given the dangers of driving under the influence, that's hardly a severe punishment. But it is a terrific way to protect Marylanders from being killed -- as well as a good way to change driver behavior.

That last benefit is likely to prove most effective with first-time offenders who have not yet become hard-core abusers like Thomas L. Meighan Jr., the man who had been given repeated second-chances after drunk driving convictions and is now charged with automobile manslaughter in the October death of 20-year-old Johns Hopkins University student Miriam Frankl.

Such a horrific crime has awakened the public to the drunk-driving threat that for too long has been treated indifferently by state legislators who may be willing to decry the sin but rarely to punish the sinner. That's what happened last year, when similar legislation was presented in the House but ended up in Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr.'s desk drawer, never to be voted on.

Marylanders are unlikely to accept that outcome this year, at least not from lawmakers seeking reelection. Gov. Martin O'Malley has already strongly endorsed the legislation, and that should prove helpful.

Too many lives are a stake for anyone in Annapolis to take this issue lightly. And those who make their living selling alcohol should be leading the charge, not trying to protect those convicted of driving under the influence.

A one-third drop in drunk driving deaths would translate to more than 55 lives saved annually in Maryland. Mandating ignition interlock is the only strategy available to make that happen.

Readers respond

It's just feel good legislation. There are a million ways to circumvent the interlocks, and most of the drunks know them.

Dave

How about locking up those that continue to drink and drive even after multiple DUI convictions? We have all read the stories about the guy who eventually kills or injures someone after five or six DUI convictions.

To put an interlock on a first-time conviction is going overboard. Most DUI deaths are at the hands of those who have been in the system multiple times, not the person who has had 3 beers after work and is driving home.

The .08 forced on us by the likes of MADD is insane. They would like to see it even lower.

Anonymous

I think first-time offenders should get punished just like it was their second or third DUI because it would give people time to think about what they are doing with their life and how they're putting other lives in danger.

Lashell

It is funny how cost of the device -- $500 -- is a "sticking point." On average, a lawyer will cost you $2,500. No one mentions that cost as being a tad too much.

Perryrants

Unfortunately, people like the writer and supporters are too blind to see the dire results of the simple-minded solution proposed. As more and more laws are enacted that control our every movement and action, all in the name of making us safer, we become the fascist dictatorship we are always demonizing. When the effects of a stupid solution do not affect those who are pushing it, they can't see the forest for the trees.

Igbo

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