The state Senate last month unanimously approved a bill requiring all convicted drunken drivers to put an ignition interlock device in their vehicles, something that drunken drivers in Tulare County already are familiar with.
They have been the guinea pigs in a four-county test that appears to be saving lives and reducing drunken driving arrests. Defense attorneys, however, say they would like to see more statistics on the topic.
The bill is now before two Assembly committees scheduled to consider it later this month.
Advocates from Mothers Against Drunk Driving have been walking the halls of the Capitol lobbying for its passage this session in hopes it will go into effect Jan. 1.
Since 2010, the car breathalyzers have been required for drunken drivers in Tulare, Alameda, Los Angeles and Sacramento counties under a pilot program set to expire in mid-2017.
The program seems to be keeping first-time offenders from drinking and driving a second time, said Tulare County Superior Court Judge Jennifer Shirk, who handles misdemeanor DUI cases.
“I think for a lot of people, it is effective,” Shirk said. “It’s enough of a deterrent to stop them from repeating. It makes them think for a couple of seconds and not take action.”
You can look at it like a probation officer sitting in the seat.
Colleen Sheehey-Church, Mothers Against Drunk Driving
Interlock ignition devices have been around since the 1970s. The driver breathes into the device, and if alcohol is detected, the vehicle won’t start.
“You can look at it like a probation officer sitting in the seat,” said Colleen Sheehey-Church, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who lost a son to a drunken driver 12 years ago.
Using data from vendors – about 35,000 ignition interlock devices are in use in California, of which about 70 percent are in the four counties – Mothers Against Drunk Driving compiled statistics that the organization says shows their effectiveness.
Between July 1, 2010, when the program started, and June 1 of this year, there were 1.1 million instances when drivers couldn’t start their vehicles because the devices detected alcohol on their breath, MADD said.
Additionally, the blood alcohol content was 0.08 or higher – legally drunk – in 140,000 attempts.
“The ignition interlock device is virtually the only thing we have right now that can separate drinking from driving,” Sheehey-Church said this month in Sacramento.
140,180Number of times that vehicles were prevented from starting because the driver’s blood alcohol content was 0.08 or higher.
Prosecution records suggest that the public is safer, said Tulare County Assistant District Attorney David Alevezos.
DUI convictions in Tulare County fell from about 3,600 five years ago to 2,500 last year.
Meanwhile, convictions of those who failed to get a car breathalyzer but drove their car anyway are up – from under 100 six years ago to more than 600 last year.
“I can’t say there’s a correlation exactly, but we have seen an increase in the number of prosecutions for not having the ignition interlock device and a yearly decrease in the number of people charged with driving under the influence in our county,” Alevezos said.
Statistics from the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System that is managed by the California Highway Patrol seem to show fewer deaths in the pilot program counties.
In Tulare County, DUI accident deaths dropped from 34 in 2010 to four in 2015.
In the combined four counties, DUI deaths dropped from 150 in 2010 to 108 in 2015.
By contrast, in counties where the devices are not required, total DUI deaths stayed roughly the same over the same period.
However, the decline was not steady. In 2013, for instance, there were 151 DUI deaths in the four counties.
“It goes down and up and goes down,” said CHP Officer Mike Martis Jr., a spokesman at CHP headquarters in Sacramento. “I would not say that’s a pattern.”
When you look at New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon, all of them have seen a 35 to 47 percent reduction in drunk-driving deaths.
Jerry Hill, state senator
But Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, author of the bill that passed the Senate, said it’s clear to him that the proposed law would save lives because that is what happens in other states that have the laws.
“When you look at New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon, all of them have seen a 35 to 47 percent reduction in drunk-driving deaths,” he said.
In 2014, there were 1,053 alcohol-related collision deaths in California, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
“It’s needed, because every year 1,000 people die in drunk driving accidents,” Hill said. “Californians are fed up with drunk driving.”
For Hill, the issue is personal. His best friend died in a drunken driving crash 30 years ago.
“I saw the toll it took on his family,” he said. “His father was never the same after that. It ruined their lives.”
Hill also said the devices cut repeat drunken driving by two-thirds, citing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
To date, no study has examined the success or failure of the pilot program, according to advocates of the proposed statewide law, although a DMV report issued last year said the program “may not have a general deterrent effect” on first-time or repeat offenders.
But Hill dismissed the report as incomplete, saying it did not investigate whether those in the pilot program who got the device proceeded to drive drunk again or get into an accident causing injury or death.
The DMV has been directed by the Legislature to produce a more specific report.
The citizens of Tulare County have been guinea pigs long enough.
Derek Wisehart, attorney
One problem with the pilot program is that too many convicted drunken drivers operate vehicles without the interlocks, even though they are supposed to get them, Hill said. Tulare County has an installation rate under 30 percent, while it’s 38 percent to 45 percent in the other three counties.
The Senate bill includes incentives to get the device.
Under Hill’s bill, those who get one installed immediately after their arrest won’t have their licenses suspended for the mandatory 45 days as is now the case, will get credit for the time they have the device and would get a $500 reduction in total fines.
David Nico, president of LifeSafer of Northern California Inc., a provider of ignition interlock devices, said most first-time offenders are embarrassed and clean up their act.
“It’s forced behavior modification,” he said. “It changes their behavior. Approximately 98 percent of our clients are good people who made poor choices.”
Nico said there are about 20 companies statewide supplying the devices, and offenders pay $2.50 to $3 per day. The proposed law has a revised sliding scale for lower income defendants by requiring the company to charge them less.
The devices all work about the same, he said.
The driver must blow into it to start the car, and if it detects above 0.03 blood alcohol content the car won’t start. For the cars that do start, the driver must blow into the device again about five or 10 minutes later. If alcohol is then detected, the headlights flash and the horn blows, although the engine stays on for safety.
Once the car is running, the driver is periodically prompted to blow into the device again. The driver has four minutes to respond.
But defense attorneys say they hear stories from clients about devices failing in the Valley heat and other practical problems.
They also question whether the four-county program is producing the desired results and whether the financial expense is fair to defendants who happen to live in the pilot counties.
“The citizens of Tulare County have been guinea pigs long enough,” Visalia attorney Derek Wisehart said. “It’s time to fish or cut bait.”