Accidents More Likely Because of Ignition Interlocks?

Installation of an ignition interlock device (IID) in a driver’s car is the intended result of Washington State DUI laws. The ignition interlock device is required to be installed if a driver’s license is suspended due to a DUI arrest or conviction anywhere in Washington State. This is a statewide law, and applies equally to a Seattle DUI or a Bellevue DUI or any other location in our state. Everybody knows that the ignition interlock is a device (a bit larger than the average cell phone) that is attached to the wiring of car to prevent the car from starting. However, what is not well known is that Washington State’s DUI law also requires a “rolling retest” after the vehicle has been started. In this process, when the car is in motion, the ignition interlock signals the driver to blow into the device. Here is the part of our state DUI law requiring a rolling retest:

WAC 2-4-50-110 (7) Each device shall require the operator of the vehicle to submit to a retest within ten minutes of starting the vehicle. Retesting shall continue at intervals not to exceed sixty minutes after the first retest. The device shall be equipped with a method of immediately notifying peace officers if the required retest(s) above is not performed, or if the result of the retest exceeds the lower of .025 BAC or the alcohol concentration as prescribed by the originating court. Examples of acceptable forms of notification are repeated honking of the vehicle's horn, repeated flashing of the vehicle's headlamps, or the wailing of a small siren. Such notification may be disabled only by switching the engine off, or by the achievement of a retest at a level the lower of .025 BAC or the maximum allowable alcohol concentration as set by the originating court.”

The dangers from the use of cell phones while driving are well documented and have resulted in Washington State’s “cell phone law” that makes it illegal to use your cell phone while driving unless via Bluetooth device. The danger in using cell phones while driving is that they are distracting. However, anyone who has seen an ignition interlock device being used will agree that the ignition interlock device is much more distracting to the driver than a cell phone. It stands to reason that the distraction caused by the device will lead to crashes and injuries.

The intent of our legislature in requiring the IID is to prevent injury due to DUI. Has the legislature unwittingly increased the probability that those same drivers are more likely to be involved in a crash due to the distraction caused by the “rolling retest?” There is no research in Washington State but the California DMV commissioned a study regarding the effectiveness of ignition interlock in California which found, in the words of the study:

“…drivers installing an IID had a risk of a subsequent crash that was 84% higher than drivers not installing an IID.”

The above quote is taken from page eight of the study: “An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Ignition Interlock In California,” a report given to the California state legislature in September, 2004.
Washington State DUI laws are tough and are intended to reduce wrecks and injury caused by drunk drivers. However the ignition interlock law was designed so that it applies to every DUI arrest, making no distinction between the driver who has no prior record and a breath test reading of .08 and the driver whose breath test is .25 and caused an accident. Whereas in previous versions of the law our judges were the ones who decided, on a case by case basis, whether the IID was required, now the DOL makes that decision and requires it across the board with no exceptions. There is thus no real “targeting” of drivers who have demonstrated the most risk to public welfare in this law. Every driver arrested for DUI in Washington State is targeted for IID. It appears that the Washington State ignition interlock law trades off one risk of harm to the public while accepting another risk. The question is whether it is reasonable to accept an 84% higher risk of crash for every driver arrested for DUI in Washington State. For now, our legislature has said “yes” to that question.