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New California law mandates in-car breathalyzers for repeat drunken drivers

Ignition interlock device demonstrated in Visalia

A technician and a car driver blow into an ignition interlock device so the car will start.
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A technician and a car driver blow into an ignition interlock device so the car will start.

California’s treatment of drunk drivers just took a major turn in a “tough love” direction.

Under a new law on Jan. 1, more people convicted of a DUI will be able to keep their full driving privileges, but only because they will be required to install an ignition interlock device, commonly known as a breathalyzer, in their cars.

Those drivers must blow into the interlock device before starting the car. If the cellphone-sized device detects alcohol on the person’s breath, it locks the ignition and the car won’t start.

The device also requires the person to retake the test at random intervals while driving on the road. The device registers whether there has been a violation. State-authorized monitors, who conduct subsequent mandated reviews, must report that violation to authorities.

Some devices go further, honking the horn and flashing the headlights until the driver pulls over and turns the engine off.

Interlock devices are not new in California. Judges have had some discretion to require them since the 1990s.

However, the law, championed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and a Bay Area senator whose best friend was killed by a drunk driver, should make in-car breathalyzers much more widely used as a DUI deterrent around the state.

“Its time has come,” law author Sen. Jerry Hill, a San Mateo Democrat, said. “I think this is significant. Drunk driving (crashes) are tragic events, and ignition interlocks have proved to be successful.”

Starting in 2019, almost all drivers convicted of a second offense are required to have an interlock device installed for one year on all vehicles they own. A third DUI results in a mandatory two-year installation. A fourth mandates three years.

Also, first-time drunk drivers who are involved in a crash that causes injury are required to have an interlock device installed.

The rule is not nearly as strict, however, for first-time offenders who are not involved in an injury crash.

Those drivers can choose to rent an interlock device for their vehicles for six months, allowing them to retain full driving privileges during that time. They also can opt not to install an interlock. But their driving privileges will be restricted for a year, limiting them to driving only to work or school, and to an alcohol treatment program.

“Six months is the carrot,” Hill said. “They get a shorter time frame.”

Judges will have discretion in first-time offenses to order an interlock if the judge believes the situation warrants it.

Interlock devices typically cost the driver $60 to $80 a month, according to Hill’s office. There is an initial installation fee as well of $70 to $150. Subsidies are provided for low-income offenders.

Hill said he believes California’s new approach will reduce drunk driving while allowing more offenders to maintain driving privileges that let them continue to earn a living.

Hill said requiring interlock devices is a better safety step than revoking or restricting licenses. Studies have shown that many people with revoked or restricted licenses will continue drinking and driving anyway, hoping they won’t get caught.

California is not a trendsetter on the issue. Thirty-two other states have interlock laws, according to MADD.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted an analysis in 2018 of similar laws in other states, finding interlocks reduced the number of impaired drivers in fatal crashes by 16 percent.

A 2017 study by MADD found that ignition interlock stopped drinkers 2.7 million times from starting their cars over an 11-year period.

But there is debate in California over the likely effectiveness of the law.

A MADD analysis of an existing California pilot program in four counties — Sacramento, Alameda, Los Angeles and Tulare — found interlock devices repeatedly prevented attempts to drive drunk.

But a California Department of Motor Vehicles study found that while drivers with the devices had lower recurrences of drunk driving initially, the effect wore off over time after the device was no longer required.

The DMV suggested the state do further study about the long-term effects of the devices, and put together a task force to look at drunk driving countermeasures.

“It may be beneficial to further evaluate the efficacy of using (interlocks) in conjunction with other countermeasures, including suspension and revocation, to increase public safety,” DMV head Jean Shiomoto, who recently announced she is stepping down, wrote in the 2016 DMV report.

Hill said he went ahead with his law because he disagrees with DMV, which he says has dragged its feet.

“The studies show it works,” Hill said. “We’ve seen that in other states.”

The debate likely is not over.

A national MADD official, Frank Harris, said his group is concerned that California’s law is being viewed too narrowly by the DMV. Harris said MADD may seek in 2019 to increase the reach of the law to get more devices installed after first-time offenses.

The California Transportation Agency, which oversees the DMV, is required to analyze the law’s impact and submit a report to the legislature by the beginning of 2025. The new law is considered a pilot law and will be in effect until Jan. 1, 2026 unless the legislature decides to extend or amend it.

State DMV officials say they plan to post information on their website explaining the law and what steps people arrested for drunk driving must take.

Companies that provide, install and repair interlock devices must be registered with state regulators. The law requires installers to service each device once every two months to make sure it is calibrated correctly and to retrieve operations data saved on the device. Installers must inform the state “if the device is removed or (if review) indicates that the person has attempted to remove, bypass, or tamper with the device, or if the person has failed to comply with any requirement for the maintenance or calibration of the ignition interlock device.”

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