Five Years for a 7th DUI. Was Any of it Necessary?

prison for duiLast summer a woman was arrested in Quarryville, Pennsylvania for drunk driving. It was her seventh DUI on record. Because of her likelihood of reoffending, Susan Louise Fahr will be facing up to 5 years in prison.

Many consider this an appropriate punishment for a seventh DUI. But did it have to come to this?

Imprisonment is one of the tools the state has for dealing with drunk drivers, and unlike some measures, it actually is effective. While in prison, Ms. Fahr will not be drinking and driving.

Long-term effectiveness is a different story. Punishments like this are intended to change people’s attitude enough that they will choose to drive sober. But Fahr had already served time for DUI in 2009. The fact is that some people have tremendous difficulty changing their drinking behavior. Mandating prison for DUI is far from a guaranteed answer to drunk driving.

Ignition Interlocks: A Better Solution

Man using LifeSafer ignition interlockPerhaps if Ms. Fahr had had an ignition interlock in her vehicle, she would not have been able to get away with seven DUIs. An ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking.

Interlock devices are usually mandated for a period of six months to a year the first time they are installed. Some states require that an offender cannot have the device removed until they have gone a period of time – say 120 days – with no failed test.

Under that regime, Fahr would have had stay sober while driving. If she were unable to, the interlock would have stayed in, and she would not have been able to start the car on that night last summer.

The Cost of Prison for DUI

On average, Pennslvania pays $35,000 per inmate per year, all of it from taxpayers. An ignition interlock costs about $100 per month, which is paid for by the offender. The only cost to the state government is to monitor the data reports to ensure that the offender is not failing the tests or tampering with the device. While prison might be needed for some extremely dangerous DUI offenders, the majority of them – even those with serious alcohol problems – will be prevented from getting behind the wheel if they are impaired.

Using an interlock means an offender can keep working or going to school, and can go to counseling as well. If they are going to learn to navigate in society without driving drunk, it’s not going to happen in a cell. An interlock is an offender’s best chance to learn from his or her mistakes and stop driving drunk. Imprisonment should be a last resort after a good, strong, well-managed interlock program has been tried.

Pennsylvania’s Interlock Bill: SB 290

A bill was recently in Pennsylvania’s legislature that would have mandated ignition interlocks for all DUI offenders. Currently 25 states have such laws, and one more will be signed shortly. Road safety advocates, as well as families of victims, called for the passage of SB 290.

The bill, unfortunately, is on indefinite hold.

The national trend is clear: ignition interlocks are the way to go, and if SB 290 is passed, seven-time DUI offenders will be much rarer in the state, and the roads will be that much safer.

Will SB 290 ever be taken off hold? Perhaps, if citizens take a stand against impaired driving and demand that this life-saving bill be passed.