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Ignition interlocks are an effective weapon against drunken driving

Sacramento police set up a DUI checkpoint near Downtown Plaza. While such measures are helpful, ignition interlocks would help prevent repeat drunken driving, MADD says.
Sacramento police set up a DUI checkpoint near Downtown Plaza. While such measures are helpful, ignition interlocks would help prevent repeat drunken driving, MADD says. Sacramento Bee file

On July 29, 2001, a drunk driver hit our car. My husband and I survived, but our son Matthew, a midshipman at the Naval Academy who was home visiting us in California, was killed.

California has an excellent opportunity to curb drunken driving with legislation introduced by Sen. Jerry Hill, so families and friends do not experience the pain of losing a loved one.

Senate Bill 61 makes convicted drunk drivers prove their sobriety before operating a motor vehicle, should they choose to drive after a DUI conviction. The bill requires persons convicted for DUI to install an ignition interlock for at least six months to drive safely, legally and sober in California.

An interlock won’t allow a vehicle to start unless a driver first blows into the device and proves their sobriety. Interlocks have strong anti-circumvention features, including a camera to verify identity and requiring a deep breath so a child cannot use the device.

As a result of AB 91, starting on July 1, 2010, interlocks were required for any convicted drunk driver who sought limited driving privileges in Alameda, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Tulare counties. The pilot program ends at the end of 2015.

SB 61 expands the pilot program statewide. First-time offenders can drive sober with an interlock for at least six months. Repeat offenders must go on an interlock for at least one year.

State lawmakers must enact the bill. Interlocks are effective in reducing repeat drunken driving offenses by 67 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Costs to the state Department of Motor Vehicles in administering this program can be offset with existing licensing fees paid by convicted drunk drivers and $1.9 million in annual federal highway funds, not available unless SB 61 is passed.

Many say that requiring interlocks for first-time offenders is harsh. But the CDC reports that first-time offenders have driven drunk at least 80 times before being convicted. Research shows that 50 to 75 percent of convicted drunk drivers continue to drive on a suspended license, causing more crashes and fatalities. In 2009, according to DMV, 43,598 people whose licenses were suspended for a DUI were later convicted of operating a vehicle without a valid license during their suspension period.

Interlocks allow a convicted drunk driver to continue driving, but in a way that will protect families and other motorists. High-visibility law enforcement activities such as saturation patrols or sobriety checkpoints aren’t enough.

MADD is not alone in calling on lawmakers to enact legislation similar to SB 61, which 24 states have done. AAA and the National Transportation Safety Board also support this approach to help stop drunken driving. MADD urges state lawmakers to continue California’s leadership in highway safety by doing their part to prevent drunken driving by enacting SB 61.

Mary Klotzbach, a nurse at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, is government affairs chairwoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving California and a member of the MADD national board.

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