Last week, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law legislation requiring that adults caught and convicted of drunk driving while transporting a child younger than age 16 be required to install an ignition interlock system — a device that won't let them start their cars unless they pass a breath test. The bill received modest attention when it passed on the final day of the legislative session, and deservedly so.
There's nothing wrong with the law, of course. At least not in a state where police ticketed nearly 400 individuals during the last fiscal year for either Driving While Impaired (DWI) or Driving Under the Influence (DUI) of alcohol while transporting a minor. This could save lives, at least for the six months the drivers must use the devices.
The problem is it's not enough. The vast majority of drunk drivers don't have kids in the back seat. But that doesn't make them any less dangerous to pedestrians or the occupants of the vehicles they may hit while driving drunk. Police arrested 23,499 people for driving under the influence, and Maryland reported 160 DUI-related traffic fatalities in 2012, or about one-third of all traffic fatalities that year.
Drinking and driving is a lethal combination and always has been. Maryland has done a respectable job of tightening the laws governing drunk driving over the years, except in one area. The state has been appallingly slow to mandate ignition interlock systems for all those convicted of drinking and driving.
Three years ago, it took a major lobbying effort by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups in Annapolis to force the General Assembly to mandate ignition interlock devices for those convicted of drunk driving who are under age 21, have multiple drunk driving convictions, refuse the breath test or whose blood alcohol level is found to be .15 or higher, which is far above the legal limit. Adding the transport of minors is just more nibbling around the edges.
What the state needs is a law that says if you are convicted of driving under the influence, you get the interlock device installed, period. That's the best way to guard against repeat offenses. No ifs, ands or buts.
Why? Because states where such an approach has been taken have seen a major decline in drunk driving accidents. In a trend that was launched by New Mexico eight years ago, at least 20 states currently either mandate or "highly incentivize" ignition interlock for all DUI convictions, according to MADD.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently reported that a survey of 20 years of research shows that the use of ignition interlock devices reduces drunk driving recidivism by 50-to-90 percent. The same reported noted that the only problem is that the devices haven't "been used to their full potential," meaning hundreds of thousands of people are still caught driving drunk each year but aren't forced to have them installed.
That ignition interlock is effective shouldn't be a surprise. The technology is reliable and affordable. And while irresponsible drivers can always find ways around the system — most easily by using someone else's vehicle — the overall results still speak for themselves: They stop people from driving after they've consumed alcohol.
In Maryland, the chief road block to broadening the law has been the House Judiciary Committee and Chairman Joseph Vallario Jr. Last year, the committee rejected by a 13-9 vote the same DUI while transporting a minor bill that was approved without dissent this year. Mr. Vallario, a defense attorney by trade, proved a tough obstacle in 2011 as well.
But this is an election year, and voters ought to ask their local candidates for House and Senate seats where they stand on DUI laws. Those who are satisfied with the status quo (or even support Mr. Vallario for another term as Judiciary's chairman) are essentially saying they can live with the consequences — about 2,500 alcohol-related crashes each year, nearly 1,000 of which involve injury.
Requiring ignition interlock devices for all who break the drunk driving laws seems like a small price to pay to reduce those numbers, particularly when so many states have taken similar action. But it appears unlikely to happen unless Maryland's voters make it clear to Annapolis that they value safer roads.
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