Keeping drinkers out of driver's seat Device offers option for some offenders

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Despite arrest after arrest for drunken driving, Jerry continued to drink and drive. His sixth conviction in a decade cost him his freedom for nine months, but still he feared he would find himself behind the wheel of a car, drunk.

Now, thanks to a high-tech device in his car, he knows he won't. Jerry is part of a small but growing number of Marylanders whose cars have a mechanism that literally keeps them from driving after drinking.

The device, called an ignition interlock, contains a Breathalyzer that prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has more than a trace amount of alcohol on his breath.

"As a recovering alcoholic, you get cravings sometimes. With this on the car, if I have a slip-up, I'm not going to be behind the wheel because I'm not going to be able to start the car," said

Jerry, a 42-year-old automobile painter from Montgomery County. asked that his last name not be used.

Maryland judges and motor vehicle officials have imposed ignition interlocks in relatively few drunken-driving cases, but that might change soon. A new state law gives the Motor Vehicle Administration the power to entice more drunken drivers into an interlock program. The agency can offer to give offenders their licenses back sooner if they have the device installed.

"This is a way to put a mechanical probation officer in the car with the person -- they're not going to be able to drink and drive," said Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, an interlock supporter.

The key to the interlock is its breath tester, a hand-held device that resembles a television remote control and is attached by a cord to the car's ignition system.

The driver must blow through a plastic nozzle on one end. The device registers his breath alcohol level and relays it to a computer in the car. The vehicle will not start if his alcohol level is .025 percent or higher. In Maryland, a driver is considered to be "under the influence" if his level is .07 percent and "intoxicated" if the level is .10 percent and above.

Despite tougher penalties, better enforcement and changing public attitudes, drunken driving remains a serious problem in Maryland. Alcohol caused 35 percent of the 683 traffic fatalities last year and 7,767 injuries. Police issued more than 26,000 citations for driving while intoxicated and 4,900 for driving under the influence, a lesser charge.

Thirty-four states have laws authorizing interlock programs. Supporters say the devices can succeed where traditional approaches have failed. Depriving motorists of their licenses doesn't stop most of them from driving, statistics suggest. Many offenders will continue to drink and drive, even after alcohol-education classes, counseling or sometimes jail time.

Interlocks help supplement other sanctions, advocates say.

"What the ignition interlock does is prohibit people from going to treatment classes with any alcohol in their system. So when they get there, they're going to be paying attention more," said Carole F. Hinkel, the recently retired administrator of Maryland's Drinking Driver Monitor Program.

Several Marylanders who have volunteered for interlocks say the devices will keep them from ever drinking and driving again.

Debra Weber, a 36-year-old cashier, said she rarely drinks, but one night last fall she drove home from a bar after having a few. It was her first and only arrest -- and she says her last -- for drinking and driving. "This system will teach you never to ever make a mistake in your car," the Kent Island resident said.

The device was an inconvenience. For example, Weber said she learned that drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes in the car would cause it to behave oddly.

"It's got to deter some people from having three and four DWIs," she said.

Brian Smoot, 26, a carpenter from Queen Anne's County, also volunteered for an interlock after a conviction for driving under the influence. "If you're a person who doesn't like trouble, it keeps you straight," he said of the device.

The MVA has little information on interlock use in Maryland, and it does not keep records on those interlocks ordered by judges. The agency's Medical Advisory Board has assigned the devices to 615 drunken drivers as a condition of license reinstatement since January 1993, but the agency will not release any data until next year.

But motor vehicle officials in West Virginia say their interlock program has been successful. Since it began in July 1993, 787 drivers have completed the program and 649 still have interlocks on their cars.

The rearrest rate for current and past participants has been about 1 percent over the three years. That compares with roughly 35 percent over 10 years for West Virginia offenders who have never had the device.

But the interlocks are not foolproof. Sixteen people were re-arrested for drunken driving while in the West Virginia program. Two disabled the device, and 14 were driving someone else's car.

"Can you get around the interlock? You can get around any device known to man, but you have to go to pretty great lengths to do it, and you're going to get caught," said James B. Weber, state director of Ignition Interlock of West Virginia and no relation to Debra Weber. The firm is a subsidiary of the Maryland company that is offering interlocks here.

Unlike versions of the interlock used in the 1980s, the newer generation has safeguards that officials say should thwart most drinkers who try to outsmart the device.

For example, a "data log" records how many times the driver starts the car, how many times he failed or refused the breath test, and whether he tried to bypass the system.

Once a month -- or sooner if the system detects too many violations -- the driver must return to the company that installed the device and have the log "downloaded." A record of the violations is sent to the MVA or a probation officer. If the driver fails to go for the service, the car will refuse to start at all.

Another safety feature is the "rolling retest," which requires breath tests periodically while the car is moving. Originally drivers needed only one test to operate the car. Some drunks would have a sober person start the car or would leave the car running while they stopped at a bar.

Armed with such reports, interlock manufacturers made changes. Now, if the driver refuses to take a retest or fails, the car's horn begins honking and doesn't stop until the driver gives a clean sample or turns off the vehicle. The noise alerts police and other drivers that something is wrong.

To prevent people from using balloons full of "clean" air for the tests, modern interlocks require drivers to making a humming noise while giving breath samples.

Even that is not foolproof for the truly incorrigible. "I heard of a person letting their kids [produce breath samples] when they were drinking. Personally, that disgusts me," Debra Weber said.

Ms. Weber, who was convicted of driving under the influence, said the MVA offered her a choice: She could lose her license for 60 days, or she could take a two-week license suspension and use an interlock for five months. "I took the machine," she said.

For legal reasons, the MVA could not make a similar offer to DWI offenders without legislative approval. State Del. Phillip D. Bissett of Anne Arundel County obliged, sponsoring a law that took effect Oct. 1. As of mid-November, the most recent data available, the MVA had offered interlocks to 102 DWI offenders, though only three accepted.

"We hope that in the future more people will decide to take advantage of the program because we believe it's an effective program that will help offenders modify their behavior," said MVA spokeswoman Marilyn J. Corbett.

Only one company, Life Sciences Corp. of Rockville, is providing interlocks that meet Maryland safety requirements. The

company, which helped draft and lobby for Bissett's bill, charges drivers $50 for installation and a $55 monthly rental fee. Two competitors expect to enter the Maryland interlock market soon.

Judges have had the power for years to order interlocks when sentencing drunken drivers. Few have done so, perhaps because of a reluctance to try new technology, some observers say.

In Anne Arundel, judges have been "very accepting" of the interlock, according to State's Attorney Weathersbee. Last spring, he began asking them to impose interlocks in cases involving an accident, repeat offenders and drivers with chronic drinking problems.

"It's a substantial improvement over just saying, 'Go forth and don't sin anymore,' when you're pretty sure the person has a propensity for doing this again," he said.

Pub Date: 12/03/96

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