Insurance News

Lock out drunken driving

Posted on: October 28, 2009

All Baltimore mourned the death of a 20-year-old Johns Hopkins University student recently struck and killed by a truck witnesses saw driven erratically earlier in the day. The sadness is likely to turn to outrage at the news that police have charged a man with a long history of drunken-driving convictions in the incident. The death of Miriam Frankl need not be in vain if it spurs lawmakers to make it far more difficult for intoxicated drivers to get behind the wheel.

The campaign against drunken driving has taken many forms, from lowering blood-alcohol levels to funding sobriety checkpoints. But one strategy available to legislators could prove most effective of all: mandating ignition interlock devices.

The technology is proven, as are the results it delivers. Drivers must breathe into an installed interlock and produce a sober result in order to start the car – and then pass a periodic retest once they are on the road. Failures are logged by the device and provided as evidence to the Motor Vehicle Administration.

New Mexico, the first state to require ignition interlock for drunken driving, has seen recidivism drop 65 percent over a four-year period. Drunken-driving fatalities in the state have fallen by more than one-third.

So far, 11 states have taken the mandatory route with the latest, California, signing on for a large-scale pilot program this month. The vast majority of states, including Maryland, allow judges to require ignition interlock devices in sentencing, but too often that authority is not exercised.

Recently, volunteers with Mothers Against Drunk Driving monitored hundreds of DUI and DWI cases in Maryland at random and were discouraged by the results – ignition interlock was ultimately required in just 3 percent. In Baltimore County, the results were worse: Out of 167 watched by MADD, none resulted in a defendant installing an ignition interlock device.

According to the MVA, about 7,900 drivers are in the state’s interlock program. Requiring interlocks for all convictions, including first-time offenders, would change that. The devices are not expensive – installation and monitoring costs come out to less than $3 per day – especially when compared to the cost of a drunken-driving accident.

Last year, the Senate passed legislation to mandate use of the devices, but the measure never got out of the House Judiciary Committee.

House Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George’s County trial attorney, is considered the biggest (and perhaps only significant) obstacle to the bill’s passage. To overcome his misguided opposition, MADD and other proponents will need all the help they can get, including from Gov. Martin O’Malley.

The administrative cost associated with expanding the MVA program – about $362,000, according to the most recent estimate – should not be a deterrent, even in a difficult budget year. Saving just one life would more than justify the cost, and the devices have been proved to save far more than that. We may never know for sure whether such a law would have saved Miriam Frankl, but it’s clear that a law that does not require a four-time convicted drunken driver to have an interlock device on his vehicle must be changed.

Copyright © 2009, The Baltimore Sun

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