Texas lawmakers are considering new legislation (House Bill 2246) that would require every drunk driving offender to install a Breathalyzer, known as an ignition interlock device, in his or her car.
Putting more interlocks in more vehicles might seem like a sensible way to curb alcohol-related fatalities, but in reality, this counterproductive law could make Texas roads less safe.
Currently, the Lone Star State requires offenders with a BAC (blood alcohol concentration) of 0.15 or higher to install an interlock in their vehicle for at least one year. Judges can determine on a case-by-case basis whether a first-time offender with a BAC below 0.15 percent should be required to install an interlock.
Targeting these high-BAC offenders makes sense. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), roughly 70 percent of Texas’ alcohol-related fatalities involve a driver with a BAC of 0.15 or higher.
Texas’ existing ignition interlock mandate smartly targets these dangerous offenders, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the current law is being enforced.
Ignition interlock programs require extensive administrative follow-up costs. Someone has to check that each offender has installed the interlock device in his or her car as ordered and that the offender is regularly participating in required interlock maintenance.
A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) explains, “monitoring DWI offenders requires substantial administrative resources. Officials from several states included in our study said they do not have sufficient resources to follow up with offenders to ensure ignition interlocks have been installed once they have been ordered by a court or sanctioned by a state department of motor vehicles.”
Because most states lack the resources to ensure that drunk driving offenders are complying with interlock mandates, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that a meager 15 to 20 percent of offenders actually install court-ordered interlocks.
That means that the majority of the chronic drunken drivers who require the most supervision are not using an interlock as ordered.
Dramatically expanding Texas’ interlock requirements to include first-time, marginal offenders would spread resources even thinner, making the program financially impossible to effectively enforce.
The sweeping interlock law creates a one-size-fits-all penalty and eliminates a judge’s ability to punish marginal and hardcore offenders differently.
But all DUI offenders are not created equal: A 120-pound woman can reach the legal 0.08 threshold after just two 6-ounce glasses of wine over the course of two hours.
Studies show that at this blood alcohol concentration, she is roughly as impaired as a person talking on a hands-free headset while driving.
If this woman gets behind the wheel at 0.08, she has broken the law, and she should absolutely be punished. But surely we don’t consider her the same kind of offender as a drunk driver who is at 0.16, twice the legal limit — and at the average BAC of a driver involved in a fatal accident.
Instead, our laws should be guided by proportional response. Our 120-pound woman at 0.08 and our hardcore 0.16 offender have both broken the law, but they pose very different levels of risk to themselves and others on the road.
Additionally, and perhaps most important, research is still inconclusive as to whether interlocks actually impact marginal, first-time drunk drivers.
According to the same GAO report: “Findings regarding the effectiveness of ignition interlocks for first-time offenders are unclear, based on study limitations. For example, some studies that aimed to parse out effects for first-time offenders found no significant effect.”
Rather than expanding the state interlock mandate to include marginal, first-time offenders, Texas should extend the period that an interlock is installed in the vehicles of hardcore and high-BAC offenders, and allocate more funding to ensure that they are actually complying with interlock orders.
Requiring ignition interlocks for every drunk driving offender is well-intentioned policy.
But in practice, uniform interlock laws have unintended consequences that ultimately make our roads less safe.
Sarah Longwell is managing director of the American Beverage Institute.