NTSB recommends ignition interlock devices for all first-time drunk drivers

John Egan

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wants every first-time drunk driver in every state to be required to install an ignition interlock device – which prevents a vehicle from starting if a certain amount of alcohol is detected on the driver’s breath – in his or her car.

“The first step to address the number one killer on our roadways is to do what is proven to be effective – use interlocks for all DWI offenders,” NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said at a hearing in Washington, D.C.

Who should have to install interlock devices?

Currently, 17 states require interlock devices for first-time drunk drivers.

“It’s time for the other 33 states to step up for safety and require ignition interlocks for all offenders,” Hersman said.

For that to happen, legislators in each of those states would have to pass laws mandating it.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) applauded the NTSB recommendation. Congress, the Obama administration and the NTSB “are taking decisive action to end the violent crime of drunk driving,” Jan Withers, national president of MADD, said in a statement.

On the flip side of the issue, the American Beverage Institute, which represents restaurants, bars, alcohol suppliers and alcohol producers, says ignition interlocks should be used as punishment only for hard-core drunk drivers, not for first-time offenders. The group says first-time drunk drivers – “even those just one sip over the legal limit” – shouldn’t be forced to install the devices.

Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute, said in a statement in January 2012 that requiring interlock devices only for drunk drivers with high blood-alcohol levels or repeat convictions “is a more effective and financially sound way to fight drunk driving.”            

In 2011, nearly 9,900 people were killed in drunk driving crashes in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Interlock and the law

First-time offenders have driven drunk an average of 80 times before they’re convicted, MADD says. According to a study released in March 2012 by the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, first-time drunk drivers are less likely to get behind the wheel again after drinking if they have to install interlock devices.

“It’s easier to drive illegally with a suspended license than it is to defeat an interlock,” Anne McCartt, the institute’s senior vice president for research, said in a statement when the study was issued.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws giving courts or driver’s licensing agencies the power to require convicted drunk drivers to install ignition interlocks. MADD says more than one-fourth of convicted drunk drivers in the U.S. have interlock devices. In 2012, about 279,000 interlock devices have been installed in the U.S., according to Impact DWI Inc.

The 17 states that mandate interlock devices for first-time drunk drivers are Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri (effective October 2013), Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington. The five states with the largest number of installed interlock devices per person are New Mexico, Washington, Colorado, Alaska and Arizona, according to Impact DWI.

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