By Rose Hoban

More states in the U.S. are passing legislation that requires all drunk driving offenders to have an ignition interlock device placed in their vehicles, whether it’s a first or repeat offense.

On Wednesday, the legislative Child Fatality Task Force voted to support a bill that would require the same thing here in North Carolina.

Traffic statistics in the state show that in 2016, alcohol-related crashes accounted for 4 percent of all crashes in the state, but alcohol-related crash fatalities made up 28 percent of the 1,441 crash fatalities in North Carolina that year, a total of 402 people.

map showing incidence of alcohol related crashes in NC counties. Advocates argue ignition interlocks would prevent many of these crashes.
Researchers tallied the alcohol-related crash rates of all counties in the U.S. and ranked them. North Carolina had 14 counties in the highest rate category (red). Counties marked in yellow were in the middle third for alcohol-related crashes and green counties were in the lowest third. Counties marked in white had no alcohol-related crashes in 2016. Map courtesy: Injury and Violence Prevention Branch, DHHS

“It still kind of surprises me every time I read this, but on average, the alcohol-impaired driver has driven under the influence about 80 times before their first arrest,” Mary Beth Cox told the task force, which makes recommendations to lawmakers about proposals intended to reduce the number of child deaths in the state.

Cox, an epidemiologist with the Injury and Violence Prevention Branch of the Department of Health and Human Services, presented data on a 2016 survey showing that close to 3 percent of adults admitted to drinking and driving during the 30 days before they were asked the question.

“This is self-reported, so this might be an underestimate because people know that drinking and driving is socially unacceptable, they may not admit to this on a survey,” she said.

But more telling was the number of teens who said they’d been in a car in the prior month with someone who had been drinking; in a 2015 survey, 18.4 percent of high school students said they had that experience.

Mandate makes difference

A person with an ignition interlock device installed in their car must receive training for the proper technique, to prevent them from having someone else blow into the breathalyzer device or using compressed air.
A person with an ignition interlock device installed in their car must receive training for the proper technique, to prevent them from having someone else blow into the breathalyzer device or using compressed air. Photo credit: Rachel Herzog

When a driver gets into a vehicle with an ignition interlock in it, they’re required to blow into the device in order to start the car. The interlock can be set to prevent ignition if there’s more than a very low amount of alcohol present in the driver’s breath.

And then, every few minutes, the driver is required to breathe into the device again, in order to continue driving.

Cox said it’s hard to cheat them.

“If you have one installed, you have to go get it calibrated every month,” Cox said. In order to prevent cheating, the devices are set to the pressure each individual uses to breathe.

About 30 states have moved to make ignition interlocks required for more, or all, of the people  arrested for driving under the influence. In contrast, fewer than 20 percent of North Carolina DUI offenders received an interlock. They’re required here for repeat offenders, or for first time offenders who blow a very high blood alcohol concentration. So, the advocates would like lawmakers to take up a bill this spring during the short legislative session that begins in May.

“We’re actually in the minority with our legislation in North Carolina,” Cox said. “The majority of states in the U.S. have a universal mandate.”

In states where interlocks were universal, deaths in alcohol-related crashes decreased by 15 percent, she said, and while people had the interlocks in their cars, re-arrest rates dropped by 67 percent.

map showing the status of ignition interlock legislation in all 50 states
Ignition interlock laws by state. California recently passed legislation extending required interlocks from four counties to the entire state. Map courtesy: Injury and Violence Prevention Branch, DHHS; Data source: Intoxalocks, Ignition Interlock Laws by State.

Cox noted the research shows that once people had their interlocks removed, they were likely to reoffend.

So some states have been pro-active, requiring people who have ignition interlocks to also engage in treatment. One study in Florida found that with this strategy, re-arrest rates decreased by 32 percent, and over the time of the study, that state saved more than $900,000 in the costs associated with crashes.

“We know in drunk driving science, what happens in your first arrest has a huge influence on whether you get a repeat arrest,” said Alan Dellapenna, who works with Cox. “What the science is saying is by making you have an ignition interlock, if you have to go through the process for a couple of years, it really forces you to make the decision to call Uber next time.”

Although the interlocks cost about $80 per month, Dellapenna said that in some ways, it’s cheaper for many people to have the interlock.

“For some families that are living on the edge of employment and all that, you can lose your job by one of these arrests,” he said. “This actually puts you back into the driver seat and back into being able to deal with the mistake you made.”

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...