Stricter restrictions on first-time offenders could save lives, advocates argue. This year, legislators may be listening.
By Rose Hoban
Carolyn Carter still chokes up when she talks about the 2013 death of her son Shane.
“He was 21, one week before Mother’s Day, when a 13th-time [drunk-driving] offender hit Shane head-on at 70 miles an hour as he was returning home,” said the Fayetteville woman. And at that, she had to pause.
When she finally continued, Carter said she was begging lawmakers in Raleigh to pass a bill that would require ignition interlocks for all driving while intoxicated offenders, even first-timers.
“Driving is a privilege, not a right,” she said. “And we need every tool to help our law enforcement officers to be able to identify, test and charge suspected drunk drivers.”
Even though similar legislation has been introduced before, this year it’s got the backing of the powerful Senate Rules Committee chair, Tom Apodaca (R-Hendersonville), and that means it’s got a fighting chance of becoming law.
Currently, repeat DWI offenders get ignition interlock devices hooked into their cars, but not first-timers. According to Rep Jonathan Jordan (R-Jeffferson), who is sponsoring the legislation in the House of Representatives, the statistics show that the first time someone is caught and convicted for drunk driving is actually the 80th time that person has driven under the influence.
“They just weren’t caught,” Jordan said. “So don’t tell me about a first-time offender, the first time they ever get out and do it and we’re punishing them; that is not true.”
But taking away someone’s license and keys can be a problem. It can impair a person’s ability to work, get their kids to school, keep their households together. Take a away a license, Jordan said, and people will continue driving.
Hence the interlock device.
Newer devices require that before a driver can turn the ignition on, they need to blow into the device. Then, after 15 minutes, the device sets off an alarm, requiring the driver to pull over and blow into the device again.
“After your first retest, it will go 20 to 25 minutes and ask for another retest,” said Richard Adams, state director for Smart Start, one of the three manufacturers of ignition interlocks.
He said the device will continue to ask for tests as long as someone drives, providing longer intervals between tests with each success. If someone tests over the limit set in the device, the horns and lights begin to go off and won’t stop until a driver pulls over and shuts down.
Richard Adams from interlock manufacturer Smart Start demonstrates how an ignition interlock works. Video credit: Rose Hoban.
In the past, the devices only required an initial test to function. But that had to change.
“They were finding out that people were pulling into a bar, they’d leave their car running and go in there and have a couple of drinks and go home,” Adams said. “People are smart; they’ll figure things out to circumvent the system.”
Currently, Adams said, there are more than 10,000 of the interlocks on the roads in North Carolina.
How many more
In North Carolina, the cost of motor vehicle crashes is high in lives and dollars. A 2014 study done by the state Injury & Violence Prevention Branch found that for every motor vehicle-related death, there were another 5.2 hospitalizations and 80 emergency department injuries. The same study found that alcohol was a factor in only about a third of the state’s motor vehicle crashes; but when the driver had been drinking, the chance of fatality was six times higher than if the driver had not been drinking.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ignition interlocks reduce repeat drunk-driving offenses by about two thirds.
“We found that in North Carolina, since 2007, ignition interlocks have stopped more than 14,000 people from starting their cars because they were drunk,” said Colleen Sheehey-Church, the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “Imagine how many more people would be stopped if North Carolina expanded this law to all offenders, to all drunk drivers.”
Sheehey-Church said that in the past there have been objections to the devices being mandated for first-time offenders, but that in recent years those objections have waned.
“I think it’s education,” she said of legislators who ponder this question in each state. She said that initiatives to require interlocks for all offenders were resisted by the alcohol industry and defense attorneys. But, she said, both those groups are now on board.
“I”m not aware of any organized groups opposing it,” Rep. Jordan said. “It’s individuals who have questions about … first-time offenders and the cost and those sorts of things that we can explain and educate on.”