Few takers for ignition program aimed at drunk driversby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
A growing number of states in the U.S. are using a device called ignition interlock to crack down on drunk driving. When the device is installed on a vehicle, the driver is required to blow into a breath analyzer. If it measures alcohol on the driver's breath, the car won't start.
Minnesota's first ignition interlock program is being piloted in Hennepin and Beltrami counties. So far, the results have been mixed.
Bemidji, Minn. — More than a half-million Minnesotans have a drunk driving arrest on their record -- that's one out of every eight licensed drivers. Last year, the state Legislature decided to try ignition interlock devices on repeat offenders.
A woman named Molly is among the first to use the device in Hennepin County.
Molly, 38, didn't want to use her last name for this story. She was arrested for her second DWI last September. She's had ignition interlock on her car for about a month.
Molly says it takes awhile to get used to it.
"It's shaming, it's embarrassing," says Molly. "People don't understand what it is and you have to explain it to them. If you're in a parking lot and there's a car next to you and they look at you blowing into a device, I'm sure that person is wondering, 'What are they doing?'"
The device sits under the console of Molly's car. To start her vehicle, she has to blow into a tube and hum, kind of like a kazoo.
Then once she's driving, the device prompts Molly to blow again every 15 minutes or so. Those rolling tests make it harder to cheat.
Because Molly has two DWI offenses, her license was suspended for a year.
Normally, she'd have to wait six months to get a limited license that allows her to drive only to work, to treatment, or to AA meetings. But because Molly agreed to use the ignition interlock device, she got that provisional license three months early.
Molly says that was important to her, because her job as an outside sales representative requires lots of traveling.
"Driving your vehicle is such a personal thing for people," Molly says. "It usually is something that's a very treasured privilege, that people don't really think about because we all drive every day. Speaking from an impaired driving offender standpoint, it's a constant reminder that you made a bad choice and it's not OK, and there are consequences that come with that choice."
Molly and others who use ignition interlock have to pay a monthly fee to do it.
So far only 18 people are equipped with the device in Hennepin County. But program supervisor Emil Carlson-Clark says he expects that number will grow.
Hennepin County requires offenders in its new DWI court to use the device for at least a year. Carlson-Clark says he's convinced ignition interlock is an effective tool to stop drunk drivers from reoffending.
"I do think it's good technology, and I think it is the wave of the future and it is very preventative," says Carlson-Clark. "I think it's very hard to drink and drive with this device on your car."
Ignition interlock is said to be up to 90 percent effective while it's installed. But studies show once the device is removed, recidivism rates return to normal levels.
Carlson-Clark says he hopes combining the device with intense court supervision will help problem drinkers change their behavior. He says he hopes Minnesota will eventually require the device statewide.
"The clients get a benefit of getting their license back early, and then the public gets the benefit of them not being able to drink and drive," says Carlson-Clark.
"A lot of statistics prove that people, even though they don't have a license, they still drive," adds Carlson-Clark. "So this way they're required to get insurance, they're required to have a valid license, and to have a device that disables them from drinking and driving. So, I think it's a benefit to everybody."
Ignition interlock has been less successful in Beltrami County, where so far not a single offender has agreed to participate. Program supervisor Sheila Fontaine says in Beltrami County, which has a high poverty rate, the biggest obstacle is the cost.
To use the device, offenders must pay a $90 installation fee, plus about $150 a month for as long as the device is installed. Fontaine says that's in addition to the normal court fines, increased car insurance rates and other costs associated with getting multiple DWIs.
"When we've been offering this to people, they're weighing this out, how much this is going to cost them," Fontaine says. "Along with the reinstatement fee, which is another $680, they're indicating that this is just more than they can financially afford."
Officials in Beltrami and Hennepin counties say the pilot ignition interlock program is helping determine what works and what doesn't.
The program runs through summer of 2009. After that, the state Legislature will decide whether or not to make the program mandatory statewide.
Minnesota is one of the last states to move toward using ignition interlock devices as a condition of probation for drunk driving offenses.
As of 2006, 45 states and the District of Columbia allow use of the devices. In 20 of those states, the devices are mandatory for repeat offenders.
- All Things Considered, 01/08/2008, 5:24 p.m.