Interlock law now in effect

By Paula Horton, Herald staff writerJanuary 2, 2009 

There may be more people blowing into a device to start their car soon, thanks to a new law letting people charged or convicted of drunk driving get their driving rights restored.

The law, which took effect Jan. 1, lets drivers who have suspended licenses because they were caught driving under the influence of alcohol receive an Interlock License once they install an ignition interlock device in their car.

The interlocks require a driver to breathe into a device that tests their breath to ensure they haven't been drinking. If alcohol is detected, the vehicle won't start.

"I think it's a good, common-sense approach to solving this DUI problem," said Lt. Jay Cabezuela of the Washington State Patrol's Kennewick detachment. "Obviously if you take someone's license away, it limits their ability to work and make a living. ... And hopefully if they do drink, this will prevent them from getting behind the wheel and starting a car."

Drivers also have to check their breath sometime within an hour of starting a vehicle, said Lt. Rob Reichert, with the WSP in Seattle. The device randomly requires a second-breath test to ensure a driver who has been drinking does not get someone else to blow into the interlock so the car will start.

"It could be 10 minutes. It could be 20 minutes," Reichert said. "They have a warning that goes off if they don't blow -- horn honking, taillights blinking, headlights flashing -- so they know they'll have to pull over soon or their car will be disabled."

Troopers in the Tri-Cities have seen an increase in the number of drivers being arrested for DUI. Generally, they average about 750-800 arrests a year and were "just a little bit above average" in 2008, Cabezuela said.

Through about Christmas, they had 839 DUI arrests, he said. That was about 15 percent more than in 2007.

Eight of the 13 fatality crashes in the Tri-Cities were caused by drunken drivers, he said. In more than half of those, the drivers also weren't buckled up.

"The two seem to go hand-in-hand for some reason," Cabezuela said. "If they're intoxicated, chances are they're not going to be wearing a seat belt."

The Interlock License law should prevent repeat offenders from getting behind the wheel while drunk, supporters say.

"We already know that we can't trust known drunk drivers to obey the law," said state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, the prime sponsor of the Interlock License legislation. "So while we'll still be tough on them, we're also going to be smart by using innovative technology, and this new approach should save countless lives."

Many drivers convicted of DUI were driving with suspended licenses, often for reasonable purposes such as going to work or school, officials said. The new law will let them continue to legally drive, while helping them "stay on the straight and narrow," said Liz Luce, director of the state Department of Licensing.

The Interlock License is not available to someone charged with or convicted of vehicular homicide or vehicular assault in the past seven years. Drivers caught under the influence of drugs also aren't eligible because the interlocks only are capable of detecting alcohol.

The success of the new law, however, depends on the number of drivers who actually comply with the interlock requirements.

In 2008, troopers in Tri-Cities, Yakima and Walla Walla arrested 74 drivers who were supposed to have ignition interlocks installed in their vehicles, but didn't, Cabezuela said. Twenty-three of those drivers were in the Tri-Cities.

Yakima County had only a 41 percent compliance rate -- 35 of the 85 people convicted of DUI had interlock devices installed, Reichert said.

King County's results were better -- 64 of the 86 people checked, or 74 percent, were in compliance, he said.

The checks were completed through a pilot program in both counties with the WSP, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission and the state Department of Licensing. The program began in June and doesn't have an end date, Reichert said.

"We contacted them at their house, and although they wouldn't admit it, through 24 years of experience I believe (those not in compliance) were driving," Reichert said. "The vehicles there were registered to them, but they said they weren't driving."

Through the pilot program, checks also were made on the five manufacturers certified to sell interlock devices in the state and the 79 vendors in the state to ensure the installed interlocks were properly calibrated.

Although the compliance rates were not as high as officials would like, Reichert said he thinks the new license will be effective.

The low compliance rate in Yakima may be attributed to a large Hispanic population that isn't fully educated on the interlock requirements or the new law, he said.

The state patrol is working to change that by using its El Protector program to reach out to the Hispanic community and make presentations to treatment providers and probation officers.

The cost of an interlock device -- $65-$75 a month -- also may also be a factor in the compliance rate if people can't afford the payments. Drivers are responsible for all costs related to the device and monitoring.

But, the new law has a provision that establishes a special fund from the $20 application fee that can be accessed by people who can't afford to pay for the interlock device, Reichert said.

"Of course what we want to do is save a life by this," Reichert said. "If we save one life just because somebody could not drive that night because they were too drunk, the program is a success.

"However, we do expect better results than that."

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