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Do Alcohol Detectors Keep Drunk Drivers Off the Road?

  • Eric Mack

Alcohol-related crashes killed nearly 18,000 people on American highways last year. Just a few years ago, New Mexico had one of the most serious drunk driving problems in the United States, with more alcohol-related fatalities per capita than any other state. Since then, legislators have addressed the problem with many new laws, including requiring ignition interlocks for repeat "DWI" (driving while intoxicated) offenders. It's basically a breath analyzer installed in the car that won't let the car be started if the driver has been drinking. The interlock requires the driver to pass a re-test at random intervals while driving, otherwise it will shut off the vehicle. It's meant to prevent people from taking a drink after they've started the car or from having a sober person start the car for someone who's been drinking.

Other states have similar laws, but in 2005, New Mexico became the first to require interlocks for first-time offenders. Many officials say they're beginning to see positive results from mandatory interlock sentencing for all DWIs. Others disagree, and there have been problems with the law.

Until a few years ago, Leslie Hines didn't really think twice about driving home after a few drinks or even after a few too many. But these days, that decision is out of her hands. Before she can start her car, she has to pass the interlock test. She takes a deep breath and blows into the device. A click, a beep, and a few moments later, the interlock message panel displays 'Drive Safely!'

In 2004, Hines tried to drive home after a party. She got on the highway heading the wrong way without her headlights on. She says she still doesn't remember what happened. "Never had an accident, never been arrested for DWI, so I figured I was an okay driver after drinking," she explains. "This basically caught me off guard and by surprise. One minute I'm at a party, having a good time and drinking wine and the next minute I'm in the emergency room waking up to this horrible news of what happened."

What happened was that Hines had crashed head-on into a Miata and a Jeep. Her blood-alcohol content was three times the legal limit. She walked away with serious injuries, but a woman from the Miata wasn't so lucky. She was in a coma. Doctors weren't sure she would survive. Hines was sentenced to jail time, ordered to do community service, and an ignition interlock was installed in her car.

She says she used to be embarrassed about having the device, but no longer. "Now I talk about it, you know, it's just like putting the seatbelt on for me, the interlock now. I think I would miss it if I didn't have it."

Leslie Hines is a true interlock success story. More than two years after her accident, she hasn't driven drunk; in fact, she hasn't even had a drink at all. After completing her community service in drunk driving prevention, she got a paid job with Impact DWI, a group that advocates ignition interlocks. She frequently speaks on panels and at schools, sometimes with the woman from the Miata, who survived, but with permanent injuries.

Richard Roth is Hines' boss and president of Impact DWI. He says his statistics show that drunk driving crashes are down since New Mexico's interlock laws went into effect. And, he says requiring the offender to pay for their own interlock installation and maintenance also saves the state money. "I'm all in favor of law enforcement, I want us to be able to raise the salaries of officers, to hire more officers, but the ignition interlock is really the most cost-effective and effective way in which we deal with drunk driving and I don't think anybody can challenge that if they really look at the numbers."

But New Mexico has never commissioned an official study to determine the impact interlocks have had on the drunk driving problem. And Steven Flint, former chief of the state's Traffic Safety Bureau, says Roth's statistics don't reflect the reality. "Seventy percent of the drunk drivers in fatal crashes in New Mexico and nationally have never been arrested for DWI, so even if you mandate ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers, they wouldn't have them on the cars of people who've never been convicted. That leaves only 30 percent who might be affected." Flint thinks a more effective and proven strategy is to revoke DWI offenders' drivers' licenses.

Ignition interlocks are just one of a number of programs New Mexico has instituted over the last five years. Although there is some debate over the success of programs like mandatory interlocks, by most measures, drunk driving crashes have declined in the past few years.

And in the case of Leslie Hines, her ignition interlock has helped to create some very important long-term changes in her life. "The obvious is I know now that I won't kill anybody and by talking to all these different groups - I speak in front of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) panels and different schools and kids - it makes me feel like I have another chance; that I wasn't killed that night and my victims weren't killed so I can actually go on and tell the story."

Hines expects her interlock will be removed in another year. In the meantime, other states are following New Mexico's lead in mandating interlocks for all offenders.