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How ignition interlock devices can stop drunk drivers in their tracks

Lynn Walford | June 12, 2014
Here's an effective way to stop drunk drivers from taking the road: Make sure that they can't start the car whenever they're under the influence.

Here's an effective way to stop drunk drivers from taking the road: Make sure that they can't start the car whenever they're under the influence.

That's the idea behind alcohol ignition interlock devices, which a growing number of states are using to keep drunk drivers off the road. An ignition interlock device can stop a vehicle from starting if a breathalyzer estimates the person behind the wheel has a blood alcohol content over a preset limit.

"A car is a lethal weapon when operated by a drunk driver," says Steven Benvenisti, a partner in the law firm of Davis, Saperstein & Salomon in New Jersey who also serves on the the board of directors of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). And Benvenisti would know: When he was in college, a drunk driver slammed into him while he was walking, knocking his body 70 feet away. The crash put Benvenisti in a coma, and doctors told his family he would never recover. Instead, after intensive therapy and now fully recovered, he's devoting his professional career to preventing drunk driving and representing victims.

"States that adopted all-offender ignition interlock device legislation have seen as much as a 43 percent reduction in drunk driving fatalities on their roadways," Benvenisti said.

Ignition interlock setups feature a handheld breath alcohol tester and an electronic control unit connected to the ignition and integrated into the dash, says Derek Latif, media manager for Alcohol Countermeasure Systems (ACS). Before the car can start, the driver has to blow into a disposable mouthpiece on the handset. A sensor within the handset analyzes the breath sample and gives a precise reading of the alcohol level before the car will start.

The system can even prompt drivers to submit to additional tests after they've hit the road to ensure that they haven't had a drink since starting the engine. Interlocks never stop the engine while it is running, but they do keep a record of any violations.

Ignition interlock systems can be ordered by judges after drunk driving convictions. The devices allow people with drunk driving convictions to commute to work, while also reducing the risk of a repeat offense. A growing number of states are turning to ignition interlocks in drunk driving cases: 22 states have laws requiring ignition interlocks for first-time drunk driving convictions while California is running a pilot program for mandatory ignition interlocks in select counties. Just this past week, a law went into effect in West Virginia that lets DUI offenders opt into the state's interlock program more quickly, while a bill requiring ignition locks for first-time offenders is making its way through Ohio's legislature.


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