Kansas Study: States Are Clueless About the Benefits of Ignition Interlocks

magnifying glass with clueA recently published study by Kansas University gets to the heart of the controversy about ignition interlocks in the US, and why more states aren’t embracing them enthusiastically:

The researchers, writing for Policy Studies Journal, studied data from various states to find out why or why not they adopted ignition interlock as a measure to stop repeat drunk driving. An ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking.

One of the authors has noted that the devices do what they are meant to, i.e., they prevent recidivism in drunk driving.

“American researchers in a new study found that rather being treated as an effective public safety tool that can prevent deaths, ignition interlock laws are typically …. seen as too lenient a form of criminal punishment.”

The reason more states aren’t adopting interlocks for all drunk driving offenders, then, is because of a mistaken perception. Politicians believe – or they think their constituents believe – that letting drivers back behind the wheel after a DUI is too lenient. They believe that it’s safer to suspend the licenses of drunk drivers.

interlock-test More than half – some estimates say three-quarters – of suspended drivers continue to drive despite having no license. If they have a drinking problem, they’ll be drinking – and uninsured.

While suspensions “feel” like the right measure, they’re not doing what proponents think they do. It’s hard keeping repeat drunk drivers off the road, and installing ignition interlocks in the offender’s vehicle has been shown to be the solution that works best. Because a person who has been drinking cannot start the vehicle, he or she stays off the road. Stamping “suspended” on a license doesn’t do that.

Here’s the researchers’ conclusion:

… interlock policies should be categorized as protective regulatory policies rather than social regulatory policies.

In other words, rather thinking of ignition interlocks as a way to regulate the behavior of drunk drivers, it should be seen as a method of protecting the public.

Advocates of ignition interlocks have been saying this all along, of course. Fines, license suspensions community service, and even mandatory counseling and treatment have their place, but an interlock is the only measure, apart from imprisonment, that actually prevents a drunk driver from getting on the road.  And most would argue that imprisonment for first-time offenders would be extreme and unjust, as well as costly and socially disruptive.

The research is out there.

Now will more legislators please read it, educate the public, and then take the lead?