Over the past several years use of ignition interlock devices (IIDs) has been growing in momentum and popularity as a deterrent to DUI. At the beginning of 2019, California became the 33rd state to expand its IID technology program, requiring the installation of IIDs for repeat DUI offenders and offering IIDs to first-time offenders in exchange for a reduced license suspension. Now, some members of Congress are opening up a debate about whether IIDs should be required in all vehicles, regardless of a driver’s history with DUI.
While IIDs do seem to be effective in reducing incidents of DUI, the technology is not without controversy, especially as the government seeks to expand its use. Some see it as a powerful safety feature not unlike the seat belt or the air bag; others view it as an unnecessary invasion of privacy. Let’s take a closer look at the different sides of this debate to see what we can learn.
What Is an Ignition Interlock Device?
An IID is effectively a breathalyzer installed in a vehicle that requires the driver to blow into a tube before starting the car. The IID measures the driver’s blood alcohol content, and if the result exceeds a certain BAC level, the car simply won’t start. Most IIDs also have a “rolling retest” that requires the driver to breathe into the device periodically while driving. If alcohol is detected, the IID alerts law enforcement.
Those in Favor…
Many proponents of the expanded use of IIDs believe the technology is actually being underused. They contend that when IIDs are only required for drivers with prior DUI convictions, it is being used more as a penalty than a preventative. They view IID technology as a safety feature similar to an airbag, and they believe installing it in all vehicles would prevent many more instances of DUI—even among people who mistakenly believe they are safe to drive.
Opponents of IID technology tend to see it as an intrusion. Some may approve the use of IIDs as a penalty for repeat DUI offenders, but they view the technology itself as an invasion of privacy—another form of “Big Brother” watching their every move, even within their own vehicles. They see the technology as flawed and incomplete, contending that it is too easy to “get around” the IID by having a friend blow into the device, for example. They also worry that the IID might malfunction, locking up the vehicle due over a false positive and alerting authorities needlessly. In short—they see it as harassment.
A Look at Facts and Evidence
When emotions run high in a debate over how IIDs should be used, it’s often fueled by misconceptions and inaccuracies as to how the technology works and the purposes it serves. So let’s bring some perspective to the conversation by exposing some of the myths and misconceptions about ignition interlock devices.
MYTH: IIDs are too easy to trick.
Skeptics of the technology argue that there are too many ways in which an IID device can be bypassed or “tricked,” and therefore aren’t all that effective in deterring DUI. However, like everything else, the technology continues to advance, and government-mandated IIDs today are quite tamper-proof. Some misconceptions about tricking the device:
• Having a friend blow into the device. Most IIDs now include a camera that detects when someone other than the driver uses the device. In addition, the rolling re-test makes it nearly impossible to bypass the device repeatedly.
• Using compressed air (e.g., a balloon). IIDs are equipped with heat sensors that can detect when the driver didn’t actually breathe into the device.
• Masking the smell of alcohol with mints, mouthwash, etc. This tactic simply doesn’t work. The IID doesn’t “smell” the driver’s breath; it measures the alcohol molecules, which are present regardless of how the driver tries to mask the smell.
• Disabling the device. Government-mandated IIDs detect when they’ve been improperly disabled, and attempts to disable it are recorded and reported.
Bottom line: Most DUIs occur due to lack of judgment, not with malice aforethought. Tricking an IID successfully requires more commitment and predetermination than the average driver who simply had too much to drink would possess.
MYTH: IIDs are an invasion of privacy.
For those worried about whether the government is tracking them with IIDs, the concern is understandable. When you realize how many ways the technology can interact with law enforcement, the idea of requiring it in all vehicles can seem invasive. However, remember that the safeguards mentioned above are designed in the context of stopping prior DUI offenders from doing it again. If IIDs were installed as a safety feature—for example, so a concerned parent could keep his teenager from making a mistake—there’s nothing to suggest that the IID would have to send data to law enforcement. It’s a point that could be made while the debate is still in its early stages.
MYTH: IIDs aren’t effective.
This argument first surfaced when there was insufficient data to prove IIDs actually reduced incidents of DUI. Now that they’ve been around a few years, the data suggests they can be effective. The Baltimore Sun quotes one study that shows vehicle fatalities have dropped by 7 percent when all DUI offenders are required to use IIDs, as opposed to only 2 percent in states where IIDs are only used with repeat offenders. Of course, more data is needed, and any benefits need to be weighed against the costs and burdens for drivers who have to pay for and live with this technology.
The Future of the Technology
Will all vehicles soon be required to have IIDs installed? That question remains to be answered, possibly years down the road. It has become part of the ongoing larger debate between the importance of privacy and the need for public safety, and the conversation is just beginning. However, the data now shows that states using ignition interlock are seeing reduced instances of DUI and reduced fatality rates—and that fact in itself makes the conversation worth having.