An ignition interlock device is all that stands between you and some would-be drunk drivers. Too much alcohol on your breath? You’re not going anywhere.
Yet people already busted for drunk driving are trying to hit the road under the influence by the thousands of attempts.
Ignition interlocks started going into cars of some convicted Hawaii drunk drivers in 2011. That first year, people with too much alcohol in their systems still tried to drive more than 4,000 times. It happened more than 11,000 times last year and, they’re on pace to pass that this year with more than 3,000 blocked starts so far.
Arkie Koehl of Mothers Against Drunk Driving says, “We have kept a lot of drunk drivers off the road.”
Off the road, but sure trying to get on it.
“It’s hard to get inside the mind of a person once they’ve had a few drinks, but they tend to think they can do an awful lot of things they can’t do,” Koehl said. “They think they can pick up that girl, they think they can start that car, they’re superman.”
Superman, meet kryptonite: the Smart-Start ignition interlock now in 1,500 cars statewide.
“Every time you blow it snaps a picture of who is blowing,” explains interlock installer Mike Allwer of Discount Store on Pensacola. “So the driver only blows into the unit, if the passenger blows it’s going to show and it’s a violation.”
So why would someone even sit and try, or are they hoping maybe they’ll trick it?
“Part of it is that,” said JoAnn Hamaji-Oto, from the manufacturer Smart Start. “Some people may think that they’re OK to drive even though they’ve been drinking, that they’re ‘sober enough’.”
Just who is racking up those thousands of failed starts? Most people with interlock are clean as a whistle, others… not so much.
“We do 200 customers average,” Allwer said, “Maybe like two customer were coming in like every week for violation, or every other week.”
It hits them in the pocketbook. More than $50 every time.
“When they start feeling the pinch of the $52, they back up, they don’t drink,” Allwer said.
But that’s where the penalty ends. Even though the state Department of Transportation gets told about every one of those dirty blows, we discovered the data goes nowhere from there because the law itself stops short.
“Get that data into the hands of the Judiciary and law enforcement if necessary so they can do something about the people who are continuing to fail their driving starts,” Koehl said. “Most states have probation for repeat offenders, we don’t for financial reasons, for economic reasons.”
Reasons lawmakers overlooked fixing this year. We fished out the interlock bill itself from years ago and found this: “When the state’s fiscal outlook improves, the issue of probation (for convicted repeat offenders) will be revisited and implemented.”
Lawmakers loosened up the money bags on a range of public programs in a nearly $24 billion budget passed this week, but they skipped DUI probation, along with any tougher penalties for DUI.
“We’re talking about two or three probation officers being assigned,” Koehl said, “that’s all.”
We asked those on the other side of the issue what they think are the odds are of probation becoming part of the DUI adjudication system.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon,” said defense attorney Victor Bakke “and that’s just a matter of cost and resources. About 40 percent of the cases every year are dismissed just because the court can’t even get to the trial to convict them to begin with. Are we really going to get them on probation violations?”
“It’s going to be like the van-cams,” Bakke adds. “They thought that if you just take a picture of somebody driving, and submit a print out from the radar gun that’s all you need and that went like pthhhh.”
So while ignition interlock violations continue to mount by the thousands, the question remains: to what end?
“We need to establish probation for repeat offenders,” Koehl said. “It’s a strengthening of the law which will save lives.”
But could it backfire?
“If people really feel they are going to be punished for failing the test of the car,” Bakke said, “then you’re going to have people going even farther underground.”
That is, driving anyway without a license, possibly without an interlock, and with a drinking problem.
We also found the state DOT and governor’s office have let years go by without implementing the “Impaired Driving Task Force” supposed to take the place of the “Ignition Interlock Task Force” years ago, and there are even federal funds waiting around for it.
KHON2 asked when this will be wrapped up, no response yet from the DOT, which has to send the list of suggested names to the governor.