In a December 23, 2019 article in the New York Times by Stacey Cowley and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, the New York Times reported on an increasing concern over the use of ignition interlock devices for drivers with drunken driving convictions. The interlock device is connected to the vehicle’s ignition and requires the driver to prove sobriety by blowing into the device before allowing the vehicle’s ignition to start. By some accounts, the devices have resulted in 15% fewer fatalities from alcohol-related car accidents in the 34 states that require them and have prevented more than three million attempts to drive drunk in the past decade or so.
While the interlock devices have effectively prevented attempts to drive drunk and prevented alcohol-related accidents, the interlock devices have also presented as a new cause for distracted driving. While the interlock devices first require a breath test prior to starting the vehicle’s ignition, they also require intermittent tests while the driver is on the road. Drivers are required to hold the test with one hand and blow into it to keep driving. If the driver does not comply with one of the randomly-initiated “rolling tests,” the vehicle’s horn honks and lights flash until the vehicle’s ignition is turned off.
Manufacturers of the interlock devices, while benefitting from the rapidly-growing and lucrative interlock device industry, cite a lack of evidence of interlock-related distracted driving accidents, and also cite that it is impractical to expect drivers to pull over each time they retest. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, however, began revising its guidelines for the use of the device, indicating that it intends that drivers should pull over to the side of the road before performing the retest. Still the function of the devices has not changed, and the device does not require that a vehicle be in park before performing a retest.
The devices themselves employ breath-test technology that is less reliable than the breathalyzers used by officers during a traffic stop, and even those are not reliable enough to be admissible in court. The interlock devices have produced false-positive results, and suggest that a driver not eat sugary foods prior to use of the device. Things like gum, mints, and mouthwash can also prevent an otherwise sober driver from passing the breath test.
Despite the unreliability of the tests, the positive effects of the test have prevented the federal government and the individual states from implementing stricter regulation over their usage. Conversely, states have continued attempts to reign in distracted driving, implementing laws against texting and cell phone use. However, weighing the risks of the interlock devices against the positive effects mask the severity of the problems associated with requiring drivers to use the devices. Drivers who have been proven sober and even passed the breath-test have still found themselves in severe accidents as a result of blowing into the test too hard and passing out, reaching for the test and veering off of the road, and rear-ending stopped vehicles while blowing into the test. While the accidents involving interlock devices seem few compared to the reduction in alcohol-related accidents, families of the victims of interlock-device related fatal accidents will tell you that more could be done to reduce the risk of requiring use of an interlock device while on the road. If the interlock device can prevent a vehicle’s ignition from starting, it does not seem too far a stretch to at least require a vehicle to be in park before using the breath test.
Manufacturers indicate that the randomly-initiated tests allow ample time for the driver to pull-over, but the practical reality is that drivers use it while on the road. Allowing time to pull over and put the car in park before the device will work could eliminate the distraction.