The hidden dangers of ignition interlock devices

Sakkas Cahn & Weiss

Ignition interlock devices, used in 34 states, are an accepted way to allow those convicted of drunk driving back on the road without endangering other motorists. Effectively, it’s an established method to stop drunk driving before it starts. An ignition interlock device requires the driver to blow into a machine that tests their blood alcohol concentration. If the driver passes the sobriety test, they can begin their trip. If they fail, the car won’t start. The result is one everyone can approve of: The driver must find a new means of transport, and the roads will be safe from at least one drunk driver.

Ignition interlock devices do seem to be effective. Mothers Against Drunk Driving President Helen Witty claims that the devices have thwarted three million attempts to drive drunk in the past 12 years.

However, the device also has its issues. It requires random rechecks during the trip, which happen while the car is in motion. The purpose of the rechecks is to ascertain whether the driver has had alcohol during their trip. But taking a test with one hand and driving with the other hardly seems ideal.

Alarming new research by the New York Times has revealed that interlock devices cause distracted driving and accidents. The rechecks are a hassle, with the driver’s attention transferring from the road to the test. The driver could drop the device and have reach for it when it’s time for a recheck. They only have a limited time to take the test before the car starts going haywire. If a driver fails to take the test or fails the sobriety test, the car’s lights will start flashing, and the horn will honk until they turn off the engine. Ignition interlock devices have been a factor in 58 motor vehicle accidents in the last decade. It is likely that number is far higher, but it’s hard to know how much greater as details of cause are not always searchable in police records.

Beyond the physical distractions, the tests are not always accurate. Different foods, drinks and breath fresheners, like mouthwash or gum, can cause a false-positive result. Unfortunately, this false test result could result in probation or even litigation to remove the stain on an innocent driver’s record.

The question is: Do the positive effects of an ignition interlock outweigh its downsides?

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