Ignition Interlock Device Reduces Drunk Driving in New Mexico

Ignition Interlock Device Reduces Drunk Driving in New Mexico

In 2005, New Mexico, which led the United States in alcohol-related crashes for years, became the first state to require an interlock ignition device for every convicted drunk driver. These devices act as an alcohol breathalyzer and require drivers to prove they are sober before the engine will start. Now New Mexico is ranked 25th among states in alcohol-related fatal crashes and is expected to rank lower when the latest numbers are compiled later this year.

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, the interlock legislation was the first of New Mexico’s sweeping anti-drunk-driving laws, which include more sobriety checkpoints, tougher mandatory sentencing laws for driving while intoxicated, and the creation of a DWI czar, the first in the nation. From 2004 to 2008, the number of drunk driving fatalities have dropped 35 percent, from 219 to 143.

“We want all 50 states to do what New Mexico has done,” said Chuck Hurley, chief executive of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose latest mission is for all states to require interlocks. Hurley said that if each of the more than 1.4 million Americans convicted each year of drunk driving were forced to install one, 4,000 lives would be saved annually.

Since New Mexico passed the legislation, eleven other states have followed suit. However, the ignition lock still has limitations. For instance, in New Mexico, first-time offenders must drive with the interlock for only one year (second-time offenders have it for two years, third-time offenders for three years, and four-time offenders for the rest of their lives).

In addition, according to DWI czar Rachel O’Connor, 70 percent of drunken drivers who kill or injure people in crashes have never been convicted of drunk driving and thus won’t have an interlock device. “The interlock is a saving grace, but the problem has not gone away,” said state Senator Phil Griego.

At the peak of New Mexico’s DWI crash rate in 1990, more than 60 percent of all traffic deaths involved alcohol. When a drunk driver going the wrong way on a highway killed a mother and her three young girls on Christmas Eve in 1992, lawmakers were spurred to lower the legal blood-alcohol level (from 0.1 to 0.08), close the state’s drive-through liquor stores, and mandate jail time for repeat drunk driving offenders.

O’Connor explained that the problem is partly cultural. “New Mexico has typically been a heavy-drinking state,” she said. Because New Mexico is so big and rural, “you can really get out and gun it.”

In 2008 the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched a five-year, $10 million research program to develop built-in car devices that would sense alcohol on a driver. In the meantime, several states are using the interlock device.

When the bill to mandate interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers came before the New Mexico legislature in 2005, Senator Griego praised the device. He said he had been driving drunk for years, often daily, and was ordered to install the interlock device on his truck after his second DWI conviction in 2001. He says that although the experience was embarrassing, it kept him honest.

Today there are about 9,000 interlocks being used in New Mexico.

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