Bruce Maiman

A good idea to fight DUIs

Nic Reed, regional manager of Ignition Interlock Service Center of California Inc., demonstrates a device that prevents drunken drivers from operating their cars.
Nic Reed, regional manager of Ignition Interlock Service Center of California Inc., demonstrates a device that prevents drunken drivers from operating their cars. Sacramento Bee file

When debate begins on new legislation requiring ignition interlock devices to prevent drunken driving, opponents will truck out predictable arguments. Don’t believe them.

Under state Sen. Jerry Hill’s bill, SB 61, first-time DUI offenders would have an ignition interlock device installed in their car for six months. Second-time offenders would have the device installed for a year. If the device’s mini-breathalyzer detects blood-alcohol levels over a set limit, their car won’t start. The concept has been tested since 2010 in four counties: Alameda, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Tulare. Hill’s bill would expand the program statewide. A just-released progress report on the pilot program was inconclusive on the program’s effectiveness but promises a more detailed evaluation in the fall.

The issue is personal for many, including Hill. A drunken driver killed the San Mateo Democrat’s best friend 30 years ago. I’ve never suffered such a loss. To me, it’s just common sense – not just “Don’t drink and drive,” but also, “Why would you do anything on the road that might put anyone’s life in danger?”

“The idea behind the interlock device is twofold,” Judy Utter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving tells me: “It’s an opportunity to stop a behavior before it happens, and second, over six months’ time, it provides an opportunity to change that behavior permanently.”

I asked Hill about opposition. “I think defense attorneys will oppose,” he said. “They’re claiming it doesn’t work, and since violators must pay for the device, it creates a financial burden for their clients.”

Yet I notice defense attorneys don’t mind burdening offenders with a bill for services rendered. The Internet is filled with law firms ready to defend your DUI conviction, no doubt, pro bono, since any fee would be too burdensome, right, counselor?

LaDoris H. Cordell empathized with financial burdens. On May 28, 1987, she became the first judge in California to order a convicted drunken driver to install an interlock device in their cars, something judges have always had at their discretion. Finding DUI felons were often poor, Cordell lowered fines to offset the cost for the device. However, the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office balked, arguing that judges couldn’t lawfully reduce such fines.

“The DA’s office took me to court,” she wrote in Slate.com, “and obtained an order directing me to stop.” Her ignition-interlock sentencing program came to an end, apparently because the county was more concerned with getting its money than with saving lives.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends $450 a year on alcohol. The cost of installing an ignition interlock is about $150, plus $50 a month to lease it. The cost of fines, penalties and required treatment for a second DUI offense – $3,990, provided you didn’t kill or injure anyone.

New Mexico, which has been a leader in interlock legislation, has created a special fund to help pay the cost for low-income people. With Hill’s bill, those who can prove financial hardship would have the system installed for free.

Some might think they can fool the device by persuading a sober person to start the engine, but that won’t work. The device requires random breath samples while the person drives. Some units also include cameras to photograph the driver when providing a breath sample. The unit keeps a sealed log of all tests and can detect attempts at tampering.

Drunken drivers kill more than 1,000 Californians every year and injure more than 20,000. In the past 30 years, more than 50,000 Californians have died because of drunken drivers, and more than 1 million have been injured. From 2008 through 2013 in Sacramento’s four-county region, more than 400 people have died in alcohol-related crashes.

There is no single fix for drunken driving, but that’s a poor excuse for not passing legislation that can do something to reduce it.

Yes, some DUI offenders will drive without an interlock device and without a license. Repeat offenders account for one-quarter of annual DUI convictions in California. But multiple studies and federal figures show that the 24 states now using these devices have reduced repeat DUIs by two-thirds. If requiring ignition interlocks reduce California recidivism by even half that, wouldn’t it be worth making the pilot program a state law?

We’d have far fewer people clogging our understaffed, overcrowded courts and jails. We would lower the burden on taxpayers. And we might even save a few lives.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at brucemaiman@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.

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