Back-Seat Driver

Bay Area lawmaker, grieving mom push for breathalyzers in DUI offender cars

A state legislator wants to see ignition interlock devices installed for at least six months in cars of motorists convicted of a DUI. Photo of device demonstration, June 8, 2010
A state legislator wants to see ignition interlock devices installed for at least six months in cars of motorists convicted of a DUI. Photo of device demonstration, June 8, 2010

Mothers Against Drunk Driving and a Bay Area legislator begin a push this week in Sacramento to require ignition interlock devices be installed for at least six months in cars of California motorists convicted of driving under the influence.

The idea, they say, is to allow those people to continue driving to their jobs but to lock down their car engines anytime the person tries to drive after drinking alcohol.

Ignition interlocks require a driver to take a breath test that measures alcohol. The in-car device prohibits the car from starting if the person’s breath shows a certain percent blood alcohol content. Drivers with the devices are required to pass subsequent breath tests at intervals while driving.

“Its time has come,” said bill author Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo.

Those convicted of a first DUI offense typically have their driver’s license suspended. The problem with that, Hill says, is that as many as half of motorists just keep driving their car on a suspended license, whether sober or drunk.

The new law would allow people convicted of drunken driving to install an interlock in all of their cars and continue driving with a restricted license, allowing them to go to work. The device may be in the car for as long as three years, depending on how many past convictions a person has.

The goal, said Mary Klotzbach of MADD, is to change behavior, “to get people in the habit” of not driving after they’ve been drinking, or not drinking when they need to drive somewhere.

“This isn’t punishment,” she said. “This is preventive.”

The bill’s timing reflects frustration on Hill’s part with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. In 2010, the Legislature instructed the DMV to conduct an interlock device test program in four counties – Sacramento, Los Angeles, Tulare and Alameda – then report back to the Legislature on effectiveness.

The DMV issued a report last year saying the pilot program did not reduce drunken driving in general in those counties. But the DMV has not finished studying whether drivers who had interlock devices put on their cars were deterred from drinking and driving again later. The DMV told The Bee on Friday that report is “under review and we do not have a date for release.”

Hill said he wrote his bill because he got tired of waiting. “It’s ridiculous it has taken this long,” Hill said of the California DMV’s pace of study. “Now I know how those people feel standing in line at the DMV.”

He and MADD cite data from other states with interlock laws that tell them the devices work. Twenty-five states have mandatory interlocks for all convicted offenders, according to a MADD analysis.

They also point to a new University of Pennsylvania study that concludes “requiring ignition interlocks for all drunk-driving convictions was associated with 15 percent fewer alcohol-involved crash deaths, compared with states with less-stringent requirements.”

Klotzbach, a hospital nurse, said she appreciates the work DMV does on drunken driving, but she has a reason for doubting that the state’s practice of suspending drunken drivers’ licenses is effective.

Her 22-year-old son Matthew, a midshipman at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, was killed in 2001 while riding with his parents in Santa Clara County. They were hit by a drunken driver on a suspended license who ran a stop sign.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak