The NCSL Blog


By Mark Wolf

Ignition interlock laws can be powerful tools in the fight against alcohol-impaired driving, but in several states the interlock law itself can be a major obstacle to increasing its use, a leading traffic safety researcher told a session of NCSL's State Transportation Leaders Symposium on Thursday.

From left, Erin Holmes, Tara Casanova Powell and Lieutenant Robert Powell.Some states have implemented laws but have not thoroughly educated their law enforcement agencies, courts or licensing divisions, said Tara Casanova Powell, a principal of Casanova Powell Consulting with more than 19 years experience in road safety research, during a session on Refining Ignition Interlock Laws and Programs.

Interlocks prevent the car from being started if a set level of alcohol, usually .02 or .025, is detected on the driver’s breath. Most devices require random retesting while the car is running to ensure that the driver is not drinking once the car is started

"Many courts are reluctant to require interlocks for low-income or first-time offenders," she said. Licensing issues can also complicate interlock installations, such as an offender who is in arrears on child support and already has his or her license suspended.

In some states, she said, vendors are instructed only to send reports of installations and removals, but not violations, which could result in an offender having several positive alcohol tests but still having a successful completion of the program.

Most states do not have a central repository for interlock information, and software and hardware may be outdated or incompabile with other agencies, she said. Many states are overwhelmed with data reports and understaffed, and a lack of electronic reporting can lead to data and coding errors.

Erin Holmes, director of traffic safety for the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, said interlocks are "one of the best ways to counteract drunk driving." She pointed to the wide disaparity in state laws governing their use: Some states require them for repeat offenders only, others for high blood-alcohol content (BAC), others have judicial discretion, some allow first offenders to opt-in and incentivize their participation.

States should increase offender accountability and focus on maximizing the benefits of the technology through assessment and treatment of offenders, she said.

Facilitating entry into interlock programs could include the ability to install a device post-arrest but pre-conviction and incentivize it through a day-for-day credit toward the interlock requirement.

"Monitoring is imperative," she said, adding that program violations need to be defined and could include alcohol-related events, circumvention and tampering attempts. Mandatory camera devices that show the driver blowing into the tube should also be included, as well as pairing interlock devices with treatment for substance issues.

Since the devices only detect alcohol, "there is concern with offenders switching their substances," she said.

Robert Sharpe, commander of the Washington State Patrol's Impaired Driving Section, said cameras connected to the interlock device need to capture the entire car to show who is blowing into the device. In Washington, officers can visit homes of offenders—the focus is on those with higher alcohol countsto check for tampering with the device. 

Mark Wolf is editor the NCSL Blog. He will be blogging on symposium sessions.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.