Ignition interlocks, which keep drunken drivers from starting their cars, are proven to reduce alcohol-related fatal crashes. But in central Ohio, the majority of first-time offenders aren’t using them, attorneys say.
Deaths caused by drunken drivers have dropped in 15 states, including West Virginia, that require all drunken driving offenders to install the devices in their cars, research shows. But local prosecutors and attorneys who defend accused drunken drivers say judges haven’t embraced the devices and defendants are reluctant to use them.
Steve Rupe, an Ohio territory manager for interlock manufacturer Intoxalock, estimated that 3,000 interlocks are in use in Ohio, including devices made by other manufacturers.
"The overwhelming majority (of my clients) have chosen to not get that," Columbus defense attorney Benjamin Luftman said of interlocks.
Suspected drunken drivers in Ohio have their licenses automatically suspended for 15 to 30 days following their arrest. But first-time offenders can ask to put an interlock in their cars in exchange for unlimited driving privileges after that time. The devices connect a breath alcohol detector to a car’s ignition that won’t let drivers start the car unless they pass a breath test. A judge would have to approve the trade-off, however.
"It really hasn’t been a question whether people want to take the option or not, it just really hasn’t been brought up," Marysville Assistant Prosecutor John Eufinger said. "I don’t find that defense attorneys are requesting that direction."
Judges in Ohio seem reluctant to grant driving privileges to accused drunken drivers, Columbus defense attorney Tim Huey said, even with the interlock devices.
"I would say that 80 percent of the judges in the state won’t do that," Huey said.
Generally, it comes down to whether or not a judge is willing to let someone drive freely after they've had a few drinks and gotten behind the wheel, Lancaster City Prosecutor Randall Ullom said.
"I wouldn't say it's common," he said. "I'm guessing it's not something that occurs on a regular basis."
Drivers, meanwhile, are also hesitant to use interlocks, attorneys said.
"It’s embarrassing to have a breath test machine in your car," Columbus defense attorney Benjamin Luftman said. "And there’s the cost."
The interlocks cost between $70 and $100 to install, and drivers are required to lease them for between $60 and $90 per month.
Huey also expressed concerns over the accuracy of interlocks. Under the law they are considered preliminary or non-evidentiary testing devices, which means their readings aren’t admissible in court. Still, the devices record test results for the courts, and a positive test for alcohol can result in automatic jail time.
"If you violate this thing, you’re going to jail," Columbus defense attorney Terry K. Sherman said. That penalty discourages their use, he said.
Interlock companies defended the devices, saying they are repeatedly tested to ensure their accuracy.
"Ignition interlock devices are calibrated regularly throughout the customer’s lease to ensure they continue accurately measuring breath alcohol," Rupe said in an email. Intoxalock educates customers to make sure that alcohol in common household products, such as hand sanitizer, doesn't interfere with the tests, he said.
Interlocks are most likely to save lives in states, such as Delaware and New York, where their use is mandatory for all offenders.
The American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that mandatory interlock laws are associated with a 7 percent to 8 percent decrease alcohol-related fatal crashes. The journal considered data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1982 to 2013 and released the findings in April 2017. The study concluded that mandatory interlock laws benefit public health.
Sate Rep. Gary Scherer, R-Circleville, wrote the legislation that permitted the use of interlocks in Ohio law. The bill, passed in December 2016 and dubbed "Annie’s Law" after a young woman killed by drunken driver with multiple previous drunken driving arrests, made the use of interlocks voluntary for first-time offenders. They are mandatory after subsequent arrests, even if the offender is only offered privileges to drive to, say, work or school.
The interlocks encourage a change in behavior, Scherer said, and the idea behind Annie's Law was to give drivers an incentive to use them.
"We want to use a carrot instead of a stick for the offender," he said.