A recent audit of the state's Drinking Driver Monitoring Program found deficiencies in the way data is monitored and shared, but that doesn't diminish its importance or lessen the need for Maryland to expand the use of ignition interlock devices. The bottom line of the audit is that interlock ignition systems are doing their job, namely keeping drunks off the roads.
Auditors were right to point to improvements the state Division of Parole and Probation needed to make in its monitoring procedures and in sharing the information collected by the interlock devices with judges. The agency has not only agreed with changes recommended by the Office of Legislative Audits but has already taken steps to put some of them in place.
A central question raised by the audit is what should happen to the monthly reports culled from vehicles by ignition interlock vendors. These reports show how many times a vehicle belonging to someone in the program failed to start because alcohol was found on the operator's breath. This information would be useful to a judge who is deciding whether an offender had made enough progress to merit removal of the interlock from a car. To date, reporting these false starts to the courts had been spotty.
The audit cited one egregious example of a repeat offender who had 14 violations in a six month period, news that never reached the courts.
The question of whether or how to share such information with the courts isn't completely straightforward. Much like a speed camera can identify a car that's going too fast but not its driver, the interlock devices are only able to show that someone was too drunk to start a car, not whether that person was its owner. But faced with the facts — a vehicle that won't start and an operator who has been a problem drinker — a sagacious judge could make a reasonable conclusion of whether a person was violating probation.
Heeding the advice of the auditors, the Division of Parole and Probation is formalizing its reporting procedures. By end of this month judges will be notified that these monthly interlock reports are at their disposal, and judges will be asked to instruct the division, in writing, if they wish to receive them. Since these reports provide important, if not conclusive, evidence of whether people in the program are in compliance, judges should welcome the findings.
Another problem raised by the audit — compiling a solid database of all the people who are required to have ignition interlock devices — is being addressed by a computer upgrade and should, according to state officials, be completed by February. This is a much needed step that will make reporting of the monthly interlock reports more consistent and monitoring the participants more timely.
But the big picture is that interlock devices serve their primary goal, which is to keep motorists safe. New Mexico, which was the first state to require interlock devices for first-time drunk drivers, has seen a 30 percent reduction in drunk driving-related fatalities and serious injury. Nine other states have followed its lead.
For years, Maryland advocates have tried and failed to convince the legislature to expand the use of ignition interlock devices, which judges now order defendants to install relatively infrequently. Currently, only about 1,000 Mayrland drivers are required to have them. A bill modeled after New Mexico's passed the Senate 44-0 this year but died in the House Judiciary Committee. Proponents are sure to try again, and they're sure to run into resistence, but this audit shouldn't be used as an excuse to once again refuse to expand a program that saves lives.