First-time DUI offenders would be required to install "ignition interlock devices" in their cars that will test their breath for alcohol before starting the car, if a new bill introduced by state Sen. Jerry Hill passes in Sacramento.
Hill, flanked by representatives from Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and nearly a dozen law enforcement officials from cities in San Mateo County and the San Mateo and Santa Clara county sheriffs, introduced the bill (Senate Bill 61) on Monday morning during a press conference at Redwood City's Courthouse Square.
The bill would mandate a five-year pilot program that requires installation of the ignition interlock on DUI offenders' vehicles for six months for the first offense, with an escalating period for each subsequent conviction. Drivers would not lose their licenses while using the device, which Hill said has been a major stumbling block to the state's current voluntary program. Under current California law, only about 20 percent of persons who have a choice of installing the device or driving on a restricted license opt for the device, he said.
Reducing recidivism is key to reducing DUI-related fatalities and injury, he said. Legally impaired drivers involved in fatal crashes were eight times more likely to have a prior driving-while-impaired conviction than drivers involved in fatalities who had not been drinking, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
And the casualties are daunting: In the past 30 years, more than 50,000 Californians have been killed by drunk drivers and more than 1 million have been injured, Hill said. Repeat DUI offenders account for about a third of annual DUI convictions.
Hill said it pains him that a preventable cause of injury and death is not being fully addressed. Conservative estimates show that a first-time convicted offender has driven drunk at least 80 times prior to being arrested, he said.
"California needs to do a better job of reducing deaths and injuries from drunk drivers," Hill said. " We must take action to prevent more drunk drivers." The bill is a bipartisan effort, he added.
Ignition interlocks have reduced repeat drunk-driving offenses by 67 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. A 1999-2002 study funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that in New Mexico, which has the nation's highest rate of per capita ignition interlock installations, DUI rearrest rates were 66 percent lower for persons using the device than rates for those without ignition interlock devices.
A second New Mexico study found recidivism was reduced by 75 percent, and alcohol-related crashes declined 31 percent between 2002 and 2007, according to Impact DWI statistics.
Currently, 24 states have laws requiring all first-time offenders to use ignition interlocks. In states that require the devices, ignition interlocks have reduced DUI fatalities by more than 35 percent; in Oregon, the reduction is more than 42 percent, Hill said.
In California, a pilot program is underway in Alameda, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Tulare counties. The devices, which look like walkie-talkies with a plastic tube on top (Drivers must blow into the tube), blocks the car's ignition from starting if the device detects a blood-alcohol level exceeding a pre-set limit. The driver is periodically prompted to pull over and blow into the device again to help prevent gaming the system, Hill said.
Drivers must pay about $100 to $150 for the device, plus a $50 monthly maintenance fee. The manufacturer will provide the devices at no cost to persons who cannot afford them, he said.
Tony Chin, technical supervisor for manufacturer Smart Start, said the device logs whether alcohol is present, its amount and the duration. Drivers in the program must return the device for service every 30 days and to have the data downloaded. When warranted, technicians can employ cameras and GPS to instantaneously download the information.
Hill said that all persons convicted of a DUI would be required to install the devices in their vehicles for six months. Second-time offenders would use the devices for one year; with a two-year requirement for third-time offenders and three years for persons with four or more DUI convictions.
Tom Gallagher, assistant San Mateo County sheriff, said he fully supports the bill.
"Each year we make about 300 DUI arrests; we've had 315 so far this year. I definitely believe it will make San Mateo County a safer place," he said.
Nina Walker, representing MADD in San Diego, spoke to the very real tragedy caused by DUI drivers and the group's support for the bill.
"It's time for California to do the right thing. My life was changed when my 22-year-old-daughter, Ginger, was killed in a DUI crash. Ginger left behind a 3-year-old son, which my husband and I are now raising," she said.