Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Interlocks proposed to curb repeat drunken drivers

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By HYONHEE SHIN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Plan to drink, then drive? Your car may not start.

Sen. Alan Cropsey, R-DeWitt, has proposed a pilot project to deter repeat drunken driving by requiring interlock devices on offenders’ vehicles.

“The idea is to give drunk drivers hopes that they can get their licenses back by showing good behaviors,” said Cropsey. “Their licenses are suspended, but they just keep driving because they still have to go to work and do other things.”

Some violators must wait 15 years to get their license back because they were later convicted of driving with a suspended license, Cropsey said.

Under the proposed DWI–sobriety court interlock pilot project, participants who were convicted twice or more would be required to keep the interlock in their vehicles for three years.

An ignition interlock is a small, but sophisticated device – about the size of a cell phone – which is installed into the vehicle’s starting circuit, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

Before starting the car, a driver must blow into the device. If it detects measurable alcohol concentration in the blood, the vehicle won’t start.

Interlocks also can be set for “running retests,” which require drivers to provide breath tests at regular intervals, thus deterring them from asking a sober friend to start the car. If a driver fails a second test, the horn will honk and the lights will flash to alert police.

Homer Smith, executive director of MADD Michigan, said the organization supports the use of technology to stop repeat drunken driving.

“The main reason people drive drunk today is because they can,” he said. “We’re working with state legislators to expand the use of the device so the interlocks are mandatory for all convicted drunk drivers. It’s a worthwhile effort.”

Smith said he’s seen a positive trend of reduced drunken driving over the past decade, but there’s still much work to get done.

According to the State Police, 5,700 people were injured and 317 died in alcohol-related crashes in 2008. In 2007, 6,563 were injured and 345 died.

That was a notable decrease compared with 2002, with 9,414 injuries and 422 deaths.

However, Jason Hamblen, impaired driving program coordinator of the Office of Highway Safety Planning, said there may be a significant reason why the number of arrests has gone down.

According to Highway Safety Planning, 47,251 alcohol and drug-related driving arrests were made in 2008. The number has declined from 49,867 in 2007, and 57,789 in 2002.

“Since 2001, we’ve lost several thousand police officers from layoffs and cutbacks,” he said. “It’s difficult to catch every single drunk driver, and we don’t have enough officers.”

Hamblen said drunken driving puts a large burden on law enforcement. “It takes about three hours for the officers to arrest one drunk driver. It’s not like giving a ticket right away on the scene. It’s a multi-hour task.”

Addiction to alcohol is a big problem among repeat offenders, Hamblen said.

“They are attempting to wean themselves off alcohol,” he said. “They live in an unhealthy environment under unhealthy situations. Sobriety courts help them to change aspects of life.”

Sobriety courts, or DWI (Driving while Intoxicated) – DUI (Driving under the Influence) courts, are specialized programs run by district courts to reduce repeat offenses by mandating treatment services with intensive judicial supervision.

Cropsey said, “The idea of sobriety courts is to get judges actively involved after sentencing. They’ve been doing quite well throughout the state.”

“Participants become free from alcohol and drugs, and they get ‘graduation certificates’ when they complete the program,” he said.

According to the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, for example, more than 500 offenders have been admitted to the sobriety court in Traverse City since 2001. The court covers Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Antrim counties.

About 65 percent of those participants completed the program successfully, and fewer than 3 percent of the graduates were convicted of another drunken driving offense. That means they are 10 times less likely to re-offend than non-participants.

Under Cropsey’s bill, sobriety courts would buy interlock devices, which cost about $200 each.

Smith said drunken driving has a huge impact on families and communities, in addition to economic costs.

In a statewide survey by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, about 20 percent of drivers said they had consumed alcohol until intoxicated at least once in the previous two weeks. Also, about 19 percent of those who reported drinking to intoxication admitted that they had driven drunk.

Hamblen said he likes the interlock proposal.

“It’ll definitely work,” he said. “Hopefully it would help those folks make smart choices to be a designated driver. It’d be interesting to see the results and statistics, too.”

The bill is in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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