Thwarting drunk driving

Minnesota is usually one of the first states to try new and better technologies. In the case of ignition interlock, however, we’re one of the last. Ignition interlock is a device placed in a car which requires the driver to blow into the device before the car will start. The device is a deep-lung-breath analyzer, and if it measures alcohol in the driver’s breath, the car won’t start.

Forty-five states have laws either authorizing or requiring the use of ignition interlock for repeat DWI offenders, and in 20 states, the device is mandatory.

The 2007 Minnesota Legislature chose two counties, Hennepin and Beltrami, to test an ignition interlock program in this state.

The pilot allows offenders who’ve had their driver’s licenses revoked due to multiple DWI convictions to get their licenses back earlier if they agree to install an ignition interlock device in their car. In July, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety certified the first ignition interlock provider enabling the pilot project to get underway. It’s already making a difference.

A man named "Donald" (not his real name) was a DWI court success story. An alcoholic who realized he needed help after his third DWI arrest, Donald went to jail, went to treatment and became part of the DWI Court in Hennepin County. He got sober and stayed sober for the first time in 10 years. Donald was on a path to a new life, but an obstacle remained. Because of his multiple DWI offenses, Donald’s driver’s license had been cancelled as inimical to public safety, and, as a result, he was not eligible to get his license reinstated for at least a year. Donald has a good job, and he didn’t want his co-workers to know about his problems, so he was using buses, cabs and friends to get to work. That all changed in July. Donald is now driving with one of the devices installed on his car.  

The ability to get a valid driver’s license is extremely important to many DWI offenders if for no other reason than it enables them to drive to work. The cost of the ignition interlock, at $4 a day, is cheaper than taking a cab or arranging for alternative transportation. There is also some grant money available to assist indigent drivers with the cost of the program.  

As importantly, these devices may prove to increase safety for all of us. Each year alcohol-related crashes injure more than 250,000 people in this country. It’s estimated that the cost of these injuries is in excess of $115 billion annually. Those who drive with a blood alcohol concentration of over 0.15 are 385 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than a sober driver. And, while DWI offenders get their licenses revoked, it’s estimated that 75 percent of these drivers continue to drive without a valid license or insurance.   

To try to ensure that repeat offenders don’t try to outsmart the system, the devices incorporate several safety checks to prevent cheating. They require rolling retests so that the driver can’t have someone blow into the mechanism for him, and some of the ignition interlocks also have a camera, which records who is blowing into the device. The device also records data on the breath test, as well as other information regarding how often the car is used and miles driven, which is then downloaded into a computer system for analysis. This allows probation officers to monitor whether the offender is using alcohol or is trying to bypass the device.

The new pilot in Hennepin County is available to most repeat DWI offenders.

Here’s how it works: current law sets the length of time a DWI offender’s driver’s license  will be revoked based on prior DWI offenses. Under the ignition interlock pilot, those time periods can be reduced if an offender agrees to use the device.  

For example, right now, a person who gets a second DWI offense and also has a blood alcohol test result over 0.20, or refuses a blood alcohol test, loses his or her driver’s license for 180 days. Under the new pilot program, if the driver agrees to install the ignition interlock in his car, he or she can get the license back in 60 days.   

Prior to the new program, Hennepin County had initiated an ignition interlock pilot as part of its DWI Court specifically for offenders with multiple DWI offenses who have had their licenses cancelled as inimical to public safety. Such offenders must not only wait for one to two years to be eligible to get their licenses reinstated, they must complete conditions such as alcohol treatment to be considered for reinstatement. Under the pilot programs, if such an offender is in DWI Court and agrees to the ignition

interlock device, he or she can get his or her license back in half the normal time.

The use of ignition interlock makes sense, and highway safety groups around the country, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, support the use of the devices. As we implement this pilot in Hennepin County, we hope to demonstrate that the device works, and that it will enhance public safety to expand its use to more drivers with DWI offenses. 

Lucy Wieland is chief judge of Hennepin County’s 4th Judicial District.