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States are strengthening ignition interlock laws in an effort to reduce alcohol-impaired driving accidents and recidivism in drunk drivers.

Alcohol-impaired driving crashes in the U.S. continue to compromise safety on the roads. Approximately one person is killed every 40 minutes due to a DWI-related crash, and the number of alcohol-related fatalities has not declined in more than two decades, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. While all states have some sort of interlock ignition law, 12 states now require first-time offenders to install breath-alcohol ignition devices in their vehicles if they are convicted of having a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.15 or higher.

Various studies confirm that ignition interlock devices are effective in reducing recidivism in first-time DWI offenders. A study from the American Journal of Public Health found that the recidivism rate among first-time offenders more closely resembles that of second-time offenders than of nonoffenders. Also, men and women are at equal risk of recidivating once they have had a first violation documented. Any alcohol-impired driving violation, not just a conviction, is a marker for future recidivism.

Even though 1.4 million DWI arrests are made each year, only 279,000 ignition interlocks are in use, according to 2012 data compiled by DWI researcher Richard Roth. New provisions and funding under the recently passed Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century law might just be the incentives states need to shore up highway safety and reexamine DWI policies. “Working toward a more uniform approach and licensing standard can only help reduce the risk of drivers driving while intoxicated,” says Thomas Manuel, director of AAMVA’s driver fitness program.

So what makes an effective ignition interlock program? MOVE Magazine talked with program administrators and ignition interlock experts about considerations for developing successful policies.

1. Develop a strong foundation for oversight and administration. In some states, ignition interlock use is mandated by state agencies, and in other states, by judges. Most states, such as West Virginia, have a “bifurcated” system, in which the Department of Motor Vehicles manages the interlock program and has administrative authority over the DWI offender. The state statute outlines what offenders must do to successfully complete the interlock program for license reinstatement, while the court system metes out the criminal punishment such as fines and jail time, explains Harry B. Anderson, program manager for the Governor’s Highway Safety Program of West Virginia.

Constant interface is required to ensure program effectiveness. “Being a bifurcated state, we must train and interface with the court system to avoid confrontational issues, such as when the court drops an offense to a ‘reckless driving’ conviction, but to the DMV, it is considered a DUI,” Anderson explains.

Education also helps to minimize challenges and facilitate communications between law enforcement, motor vehicle agencies and offenders. West Virginia’s DMV Interlock Unit provides an hour-and-a half training program, which all law enforcement officials are required to complete. “This instruction includes a brief history of the interlock program, how an officer can identify a circumvented interlock device in the field, and what the interlock restricted license looks like,” Anderson says.

2. Enroll eligible offenders in ignition interlock programs ASAP. Studies show that 75 percent of convicted drunk drivers continue to drive on suspended licenses. “The term first-time offender can create a false impression,” explains AAMVA’s Manuel. It used to mean a person has no prior convictions, but recent research by the American Journals of Preventative Health shows that first-time offenders share similar characteristics with multiple-time offenders and are not involved in isolated incidents—that given enough time, a first-time offender will offend again.

West Virginia recently revised its policy to expedite the process for enrolling offenders in the Alcohol Test and Lock Program. First-time offenders with a BAC of 0.15 or less now have a quicker option of enrolling in an interlock program after serving 15 days of “hard-time” (no driving) revocation if they waive their administrative hearing rights. “This reduces the backlog which can sometimes go on for more than two to three years and also works in conjunction with the criminal hearing process,” Anderson explains.

The sooner an offender is enrolled in the program from the date of the incident, the more likely he or she will show success in the behavioral modification goals of the interlock program. “Get information to the offender about the interlock program at the ‘point of incident’ by placing interlock program brochures at the station’s intoximeters and following up with additional information in the offender’s official revocation notice,” Anderson says.

3. Implement ignition interlock license restrictions. The benefits of ignition interlock licenses are numerous: they allow a DWI offender to remain licensed and insured, be a productive member of the community, participate in substance abuse treatment and continue to work. Providing a means for offenders to regain legal driving status is especially important in rural areas where public transportation is not convenient.

Getting legislators, judges, traffic safety professionals and advocates on the same page through regular working group meetings was key to Washington being the first state to pass a ignition interlock driver’s license law in 2009, says Shelly Baldwin, Washington’s Traffic Safety Commission’s impaired driving manager. Now, a first-time offender who has his or her license suspended or revoked due to an alcohol-related offense can drive with an interlock ignition device installed for at least a year.

The new policy has resulted in a 136 percent increase in the number of installed ignition interlock devices. In 2009, there were fewer than 11,000 ignition interlock devices installed in Washington. Now the number of ignition interlock devices installed has exceeded 26,000. “The ultimate goal is reducing recidivism...and we have watched impaired driving related fatalities decrease,” Baldwin says.

4. Motivate offenders to choose to participate…and succeed. Ignition interlock installation costs can add up, running between $100 to $250 with monthly maintenance fees ranging from $65 to $90, according to the DOT. Providing financial assistance to low-income drivers to help pay for costs can boost program participation. Some states have set up indigency funds with fees paid by offenders or by a percentage of sales from ignition interlock providers.

Once offenders are successfully enrolled in the program, make sure to keep participants on track. When developing violation policies, don’t develop blanket policies, such as “three strikes and you are out of the program,” Anderson says. Apply consequences that are proportionate with violation, and adjust strategies accordingly by considering more frequent monitoring, additional participation time, or restricted driving time.

5. Choose the right vendor and monitor the program closely. When choosing an ignition interlock provider, consider your program’s goals and criteria for participation. The key is to work with vendors to develop a common set of reporting protocols so that authorities can accurately track data and monitor activity. “You can have the best interlock laws you want, but if you don’t have installers and manufacturers getting the locks installed appropriately, then it doesn’t matter,” Baldwin says. “You need that compliance piece.”

Washington’s Traffic Safety Commission has developed a rigorous compliance system through a partnership with the Washington State Patrol. The commission funded a compliance officer to monitor and review ignition interlock records and intervened with those who were not in compliance. The officer also worked closely with manufacturers and installers to make sure devices were functioning properly, Baldwin says.

Looking ahead

While ignition interlock stakeholders are far from approaching any type standard practice, it’s clear that there are sound practices in place that are already having a life-saving impact. Toby Taylor, president of the Ignition Interlock Program Administrators Association, puts it best: “I don’t think there’s any state that does everything well, but there are a number of states that do various things very well, and we need to learn from what they’ve done.” 

For more information, visit our webinar archives page to view our First Offenders webinar.