‘Times’ Article Raises Questions About Ignition Interlock Devices

Ignition-interlock-in-use-300x200It makes the roads safer, except when it makes the roads more dangerous. It’s a fair consequence for a person convicted of DUI/OVI, except when it’s unfair. The ignition interlock device has been used increasingly by Ohio and most other states to prevent drunk driving. As illustrated by a recent article in The New York Times, the device intended to encourage safe roads and fair punishment has actually caused accidents and unjust punishments.  What should Ohio do?


How Are Ignition Interlock Devices Used?
An ignition interlock device (IID) is a breath-tester for vehicles. It is wired, as its name suggests, into the ignition of a vehicle. Before the ignition will successfully start the vehicle’s engine, the driver must blow into the device. If the device detects alcohol, it prevents the engine from starting. An IID can also be set to do ‘rolling retests’, which means the driver must provide an alcohol-free breath sample for the vehicle to continue running.

In Ohio OVI cases, ignition interlock devices are used in various ways. For a first offense, the IID is not a mandatory part of the sentence. However, a judge has the option of ordering its use, and a defendant can voluntarily use an IID in exchange for decreasing the length of the mandatory license suspension. For a second OVI offense (or more) in Ohio, an IID is a mandatory condition of driving privileges.

How Can An Ignition Interlock Be Dangerous?
One problem with IIDs is the rolling retest causes distracted driving. At the same time states are passing laws to combat driving while distracted, they are encouraging those with drunk driving convictions to engage in distracted driving while performing a rolling retest. The Times article discussed an incident in which the driver was distractedly reaching for his IID when he hit another vehicle and killed the driver.

The danger of the rolling retest is not limited to one deadly example. The article in The Times uncovered dozens of examples of collisions in which an IID was a factor. The general response of the manufacturers is the rolling retest should be performed when the car is not actually rolling. Drivers, they say, should stop the car, provide a breath sample, and then resume driving. It would also be safer for drivers to stop the car, begin playing the desired music, and then resume driving. The reality is most drivers are far more likely to change music, and provide a breath sample, while driving.

How Can An Ignition Interlock Be Unfair?
If an IID indicates a driver’s breath sample is positive for alcohol, there are consequences for the driver. Most immediately, the car won’t run. More significantly, the news of the positive test is typically communicated to the court. The driver is then required to appear before a judge, and the positive IID test may result in not only the loss of driving privileges but also the loss of liberty. The IID violation is often also considered a violation of probation, and the consequence is often a jail term.

Those consequences may not seem unfair. But what if the driver really didn’t ingest alcohol, and the IID produced a false positive? That happens regularly. The technology used in IIDs is the same technology used in handheld breath testers. Those are considered too unreliable for their results to be used in court. False positives can be caused by many substances, including sugar, bread products, mouthwash, high-protein diets, and cologne.

What Should Ohio Do?
Ignition interlock devices are a useful tool to prevent drunk driving, but we need to recognize their limitations and risks. First, the devices should be programmed so the rolling retest cannot be performed while the vehicle is in motion. Second, until that re-programming occurs, Ohio courts should not require rolling retests. Third, if there is a positive test, the government should be required to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, the test result was actually caused by alcohol.  Of course, a defendant in this type of hearing should be represented by a qualified Ohio DUI/OVI lawyer.