A proposal from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to require ignition interlocks for all drunk-driving offenders in Maryland has received a lot of support lately, including in this newspaper. At first glance it might seem like a good way to get drunks off the road, but there is an important argument to be made against the mandatory use of these devices in the cars of all offenders.
Ignition interlocks are in-car Breathalyzers that prevent a vehicle from starting if its driver's breath registers above a pre-set blood-alcohol concentration limit. Because interlocks are expensive, intrusive and prone to technical failures, this penalty has typically been reserved for the hard-core DUI offenders who cause the vast majority of alcohol-related fatalities.
To this end, the hospitality industry has been working with traffic-safety advocates to require these devices for repeat offenders and those caught with high blood-alcohol concentrations (.15 or above) on their first offense.
We've passed such laws in 27 states. But the proposed law supported by MADD and endorsed by The Baltimore Sun would force judges to order first-time offenders with low blood-alcohol concentrations - even those just one sip over the legal limit (and occasionally under the limit) - to install interlocks.
A 120-pound woman can reach the legal limit of 0.08 after two 6-ounce glasses of wine over a two-hour period. Under this new mandate, if she drives, she would automatically be punished with an interlock for behavior that, according to studies, is equivalent to driving while talking on a "hands-free" cell phone.
Requiring ignition interlocks for all DUI offenders is a one-size-fits-all approach that would punish that woman the same as the hard-core abusers who cause the vast majority alcohol-impaired fatalities. It eliminates a judge's ability to treat these very different offenders differently.
America's criminal justice system has a terrible record with universal sentencing guidelines. It's a lesson that the California legislature learned after a "three strikes" law sentenced a man to 25 years in prison for stealing a piece of pizza. Judges should be able to adjust some sentences based on circumstances and common sense.
Consider speeding laws. Speeding is the No. 1 cause of fatalities on the highway. Yet we don't punish someone going 5 miles over the speed limit the same way as someone caught driving 30 miles over the speed limit. We recognize that these two speeders present two very different levels of risk, and therefore the law treats them differently.
Most state legislatures have already made it clear that they favor judicial discretion for marginal DUI offenders by rejecting low-level first-offender mandates or passing ignition interlock bills that target repeat offenders and those with high blood-alcohol concentrations. Maryland should do the same.
Perhaps the worst part of this proposed interlock mandate is what it foreshadows. According to MADD CEO Chuck Hurley, MADD has "a long-term goal to make alcohol interlocks a standard safety feature that is installed in all new vehicles."
The federal government and automakers have partnered for this goal. Their objective is to develop alcohol-sensing technologies, such as dashboard-mounted monitors and steering wheel and gear-shift alcohol detectors, to be installed in all cars.
Once in all cars, interlocks, for liability and other reasons, would almost certainly be set well below the legal limit - at 0.02 or 0.03.
That means the end of moderate drinking prior to driving. You would no longer be able to have a glass of wine with dinner, a beer at a ballgame or a champagne toast at a wedding before driving home. That application of the technology isn't anti-drunks, its anti-drinks.
MADD is trying to subtly encourage Americans to be supportive of such in-car alcohol-sensors by making interlock technology more ubiquitous. That's why requiring interlocks for all offenders is MADD's top priority in Maryland.
Maryland should reject MADD's campaign to require interlocks for all offenders. Instead, the state should target those with high blood-alcohol levels and repeat offenders who pose the biggest threat to road safety.
Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute in Washington, D.C., an association of restaurants including more than 150 in Maryland.