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Back to Archives | Back to February 2011 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

Can Alcohol Ignition Interlocks Save Even More Lives?

By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP

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lcohol-impaired driving fatalities have declined substantially from about 57 percent of 1966’s traffic deaths, or 29,061 persons,1 to approximately 32 percent of 2009’s traffic fatalities. 2 However, the lives of 10,839 of our relatives, friends, neighbors, and coworkers still were claimed in 2009 by drivers or motorcycle riders with blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of 0.08 grams per deciliter (g/dL) or greater.3

Regrettably, there is no silver bullet available to reduce alcohol-impaired traffic deaths. Any decline requires the development and implementation of multifaceted strategies by dedicated law enforcement officers, aggressive prosecutors, informed judges, and devoted advocates. One of the more effective items in the impaired driving toolbox is the alcohol ignition interlock, which

requires the driver to blow into a breath alcohol testing device connected to the starter or other onboard computer system of a vehicle before it can be started. It also requires repeated breath tests while the vehicle is in use to ensure the driver continues to remain sober. While the alcohol interlock prevents the engine from starting and provides a warning if a positive breath sample is detected, the device will never shut off an engine that is already running. These devices must meet a range of technical criteria before being approved for use in a jurisdiction. These devices also possess a wide range of programmable options, a data recording device, and several anticircumvention features to ensure efficient functioning and minimize tampering and circumvention attempts by offenders.4

Alcohol ignition interlocks have been adopted in 48 states. Their use is mandated in 14 states when one is convicted of driving with a BAC of 0.08 g/dL or more; in 11 states when one is convicted of driving with a BAC of 0.15 g/dL or higher; and in 7 states upon a second impaired-driving conviction.5 They have been determined to be 35 percent to 75 percent effective while installed; however, the rate of recidivism generally reverts to the level of similar offenders on whose vehicles they have not been installed.6

As impressive as alcohol ignition interlocks have been over the past two decades in reducing the incidence of impaired driving and thereby stemming the carnage created by impaired driving fatalities, they are capable of saving significantly more lives, since the estimated ratio of alcohol ignition interlock installations to impaired driving arrests in the United States in 2008 was about 1 to 10.7 To this end, certain shortcomings of which police chief executives need to be aware were highlighted at the November 4, 2010, National Ignition Interlock Summit, sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Increase Awareness

Trooper Steve Luce of the Washington State Patrol emphasized during the summit that police officers, probation officers, and judges generally are unfamiliar with the appearance and operation of alcohol ignition interlocks and thus are unable to aid in ensuring compliance. The IACP Highway Safety Committee has shared Trooper Luce’s belief and accordingly sponsored on October 16, 2007, at the 114th Annual IACP Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, a workshop called “Traffic 101: Acquainting Officers with Alcohol Ignition Interlocks.” Moreover, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) conducted workshops called “Interlocks 101: Everything You Want to Know About These Lifesaving Devices” and “Ignition Interlocks for Law Enforcement” at its 2010 national conference.8 As Sir Francis Bacon said more than 400 years ago, “knowledge is power,”9 and increased awareness of even the rudimentary aspects of alcohol ignition interlocks could yield far more positive results.10

During a traffic stop or other roadside contact, police officers in the vast majority of states with alcohol ignition interlock statutes cannot readily identify a driver who is mandated to operate only an alcohol ignition interlock equipped vehicle. This situation could be easily corrected with the placement of an alcohol ignition interlock restriction on the driver’s licenses of those mandated to install interlocks.11 The addition of such a restriction could improve compliance by detecting violations that currently are not revealed and discouraging from driving those who surreptitiously avoid installing alcohol ignition interlocks.

Enact or Strengthen Laws/Procedures

Lockout levels—that is, the BAC of a driver that will preclude the starting of a vehicle for a specific period of time—vary widely among states, ranging between 0.02 g/dL and 0.05 g/dL. However, even though NHTSA recommended in its 1992 Model Specifications for Breath Alcohol Ignition Interlock Device12 that the lockout point be established at 0.025 g/dL, it currently is considering lowering that point to a BAC of 0.02 g/dL.13 Establishing a standard in this regard would remove another obstacle that currently weakens various state programs and encourages challenges to proposed actions.

Another issue raised at the summit was the ability of convicted offenders to avoid installing alcohol ignition interlocks, estimated at as many as one-half of violators in certain states. Some violators claim they no longer own vehicles, alleging that they transferred ownership to family members. Others roll the dice and drive illegally, hoping to escape detection and regain their driver’s licenses after the passage of specific periods of time. These loopholes can be minimized by mandating the use of alcohol ignition interlocks for specified periods of time—either without a violation or upon license reinstatement—or by increasing the risk of detection by adding a restriction to driver’s licenses.

Develop and Enforce Standards

During discussion at the summit, a number of states indicated they have no standards—in terms of testing, certifying, and approving alcohol ignition interlocks—upon which to base any adverse action they attempt to initiate against those who drink and drive while using interlocks. These states advised that they simply receive, accept, and file violation reports, which more frequently than not are in dissimilar vendor-selected formats. States must establish and ensure compliance with equipment and testing standards that will withstand judicial scrutiny, akin to those involving breathalyzers, because they certainly will be challenged legally when they attempt to suspend or revoke driver’s licenses or jail violators for disobeying the conditions of probation. Jurisdictions should avoid situations like that which occurred in the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department, where the accuracy of nine out of its ten Intoxilyzers between October 2008 and February 2010 was challenged last year.14

Provide Rural Service

The lack of public transportation and vendors in rural areas can present significant challenges to both alcohol-impaired offenders and their families. If those convicted are breadwinners and are fortunate enough to still be gainfully employed, they face a catch-22, since they are obliged to support their families, but find themselves without transportation to their jobs. This realistically may encourage those offenders to drive after conviction and driver’s license suspension or revocation. The prospect of apprehension prior to involvement in a crash may be remote in rural areas. However, both alcohol ignition interlocks and continuously monitoring BACs via perspiration—the best known means of which is the SCRAM ankle bracelet15—may offer a viable alternative, but by no means a panacea, to individuals in this situation and have been quite successful in New Mexico. Also, police agencies using automated license plate recognition technology might consider programming their units to scan for the registration plates of those on probation for alcohol offenses and mandated to use alcohol ignition interlocks or wear ankle bracelets, so their whereabouts can be more effectively monitored.

The advent of alcohol ignition interlocks has contributed to the reduction of traffic fatalities in which alcohol is a factor, and their use has been supported formally by the IACP since 2007.16 Surprisingly, the summit identified issues limiting the effectiveness of alcohol ignition interlocks. Police chief executives need to be cognizant of these substantive issues and exert their influence to (1) add an alcohol ignition interlock restriction to driver’s licenses, (2) prevent offenders from retitling vehicles to escape installing interlocks, and (3) ensure that interlock programs operate under the same stringent standards that govern breathalyzer programs. Innocent lives depend upon removing these impediments to highway safety. ■


1“Aggressive Drivers,” statement by Ricardo Martinez, M.D., Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, before the Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, U.S. House of Representatives, July 17, 1997, 105th Cong., 1st sess., (accessed December 10, 2010).
2NHTSA, “Highlights of 2009 Motor Vehicle Crashes,” Traffic Safety Facts: Research Note, August 2010, DOT HS 811 363, 3, (accessed December 9, 2010).
3Ibid., 2.
4Robyn D. Robertson, Erin Holmes, and Ward G.M. Vanlaar, The Implementation of Alcohol Interlocks for Offenders: A Roadmap (Ottawa: Traffic Injury Research Foundation, October 2010), 1, (accessed November 23, 2010).
5MADD, “Status of State Ignition Interlock Laws,” (accessed December 10, 2010).
6Paul R. Marques and Robert B. Voas, Key Features for Ignition Interlock Programs, DOT HS 811 262, March 2010, 1–2, (accessed December 18, 2010).
7Ibid., 2.
8MADD, 2010 MADD National Conference: September 23–25, 2010, brochure, (accessed December 11, 2010). “Francis Bacon Sr., Quotations,”,_sr./2.html (accessed December 21, 2010).
10Robertson, Holmes, and Vanlaar, The Implementation of Alcohol Interlocks for Offenders.
11Traffic Injury Research Foundation, Alcohol Interlock Programs: Summary of Technical Assistance Findings (National Ignition Interlock Summit), 1, (accessed December 21, 2010).
12Paul R. Marques and Robert B. Voas, Key Features for Ignition Interlock Programs, DOT HS 811 262 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Transportation, NHTSA, March 2010), 18, (accessed January 5, 2011).
13NHTSA, Model Specifications for Breath Alcohol Ignition Interlock Devices (BAIIDs), FR Doc 2010-25131, 75 Fed. Reg. 61820 (October 6, 2010), (accessed January 5, 2011).
14Mary Pat Flaherty, “D.C. Reviewing DWI Charges; Accuracy of Breath Results in Doubt,” Washington Post, March 7, 2010, (accessed January 5, 2011).
15John K. Pollard, Eric D. Nadler, Mary D. Stearns, Review of Technology to Prevent Alcohol-Impaired Crashes (TOPIC), DOT HS 810 827 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Transportation, NHTSA, September 2007), 5–6, (accessed January 6, 2011).
16Highway Safety Committee, “Support of Ignition Interlocks,” IACP Resolution adopted at the 115th Annual Conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (San Diego, 2008), (accessed January 5, 2011).

Please cite as:

Richard J. Ashton, "Can Alchol Ignition Interlocks Save Even More Lives?" Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 78 (February 2011): 88-90.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 2, February 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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