Targeting Iowa Bars Will Help Reduce OWIs. But It’s Not Enough.

bartender pouring drinkIowa’s Alcoholic Beverages Division is going to deal with the state’s drunk driving problem by going straight to the source – bars and restaurants that serve intoxicated customers.

The impaired driving problem in Iowa is a serious one. A recent analysis by the Des Moines Register of data from Iowa government agencies reveals that 43 percent of fatal alcohol-related crashes in Iowa last year were repeat OWI offenders. Moreover, in the past decade there were 222 vehicular homicides; 62 of them were caused by drivers with OWIs on their records.

According to news reports, the Alcoholic Beverages Division is putting together recommendations to strengthen the state’s alcohol licensing laws to make it harder on establishments that over-serve customers and release drunk drivers onto the road. These include keeping track of where OWI drivers had their last drink and making it easier to prosecute such establishments.

Currently, civil penalties for over-serving patrons are not seen as strict enough. Too many bar and restaurant owners consider the odd $1,000 penalty another business expense, easily made up by over-serving more customers.

The Register’s Analysis: Repeat OWI Offenders are the Problem

It’s important to take away the right information after analyzing the facts. The ABD is correct that over-serving is a problem, and the measures they are considering will help. But the data also reveal that repeat OWI offenders are a serious problem. Dealing with bars and over-serving will help, but the crucial point is to deal with the repetition itself.

Ignition Interlocks for Repeat OWI Offenders in Iowa

Ignition interlock stops repeat OWI offendersNot all people who drink and drive get their alcohol at bars and restaurants. Since people can drink anywhere – at home, a friend’s house, in the car – the logical place to stop a drunk driver is before they turn the ignition key. That’s why every state has some law authorizing the installation of ignition interlocks as a measure to prevent drunk driving. An ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking.

Last year ignition interlocks stopped more than 15,000 incidences of drunk driving. Why didn’t they stop more and thus prevent some of the deaths that occurred? One reason is that IOWA’s ignition interlock laws don’t do the full job:

  • They should be mandated for all OWI offenses, including first offenses, as 29 states currently do
  • They should not be removed until the offender has gone a set period (around 4 months) without a failed test.
  • An indigent fund should be established to help those who cannot pay for an interlock get one
  • The ignition interlock should be available upon arrest for OWI. That way, the offender and society is protected immediately, and the offender can start to get his or her life together while demonstrating an commitment to sober driving.

We look forward to more sensible regulation for bars and restaurants that are failing to cut off customers who have had enough and who might become a danger on the roads. But we also believe that expanded use of ignition interlocks will do even more to make Iowa’s roads and streets safer for all.