Interlock system helps keep DWI offenders and others safe

If you are driving and see someone in another car blowing into what appears to be a cell phone, don’t panic. You’re not losing your mind. The other driver is probably taking part in a program to keep people convicted of drunken driving from taking to the road while intoxicated.

The device, called an interlock system, is a small breath analyzer that keeps a car from starting if alcohol is detected. It attaches to a car’s electrical system much as a theft-deterrent alarm does. A driver taking part in the program as part of a parole or probation program is required to blow into the device before he can start the car.

About 40,000 of these devices are currently in use in the United States, but they may soon become even more commonplace. A new federal law requires that states take tougher steps against drivers repeatedly convicted of drunken driving. States, which stand to lose federal transportation money if they fail to comply, must require either complete immobilization of an offender’s vehicle or the installation of an interlock system. With millions of dollars at stake, at least 36 states have already complied.

The devices, which are more sensitive than some breath analyzers used by police, can sense very small quantities of alcohol – so small that users are cautioned not to use mouthwash, breath sprays or cough syrups before a test. When the analyzer detects alcohol, the car’s ignition switch is disabled, and the car cannot be started until the test is passed.

If a car is started, the device periodically requires that the driver take another, rolling, test, to make sure the driver did not have someone else start the car and is not drinking while driving. If the driver ignores the beeping sounds that the device emits when it is time for a retest, the system will cause the car’s lights to flash on and off. After two more minutes, the car’s horn starts beeping. If the driver continues to ignore the retest request, a violation is recorded in the device. In most interlock models, the system goes into “early recall” mode after three such violations. This means that the driver has 72 hours to bring the device – and the car – into a service center. In addition to alerting the driver that a test is needed, the flashing lights and honking horn are designed to alert police and other drivers that the person may be under the influence.

The cost of the installation and monthly rental, which are paid for by the offender, vary from state to state. In New York, the installation costs $60 and the rental fee is $2.14 per day or about $65 each month, but the fee is small compared with the amount some users spend each month on alcohol, said Richard Freund, president of LifeSafer Interlock, one of seven companies that manufacture the devices. “A heavy drinker might spend $16 to $20 per day on beer or drinks after work,” he said.

The system may sound cumbersome, but it is extremely useful to people who have lost their licenses and would not be able to legally drive without the program.

“It doesn’t even bother me anymore,” said Bob Seiber, a contractor from Selden, N.Y., who has been on the program for six months. “I just blow into the interlock in the morning, and my truck starts right up.”

Seiber has LifeSafer’s small black device installed in his truck. It looks like a cell phone, with a series of lights on the front and a small opening on the top with a disposable plastic mouthpiece.

Recently, the LifeSafer device was upgraded to require users to hum or speak while blowing into it, making it difficult for anyone to thwart the system with a can of compressed air or an air-filled balloon.

Once a month, Seiber stops at a service center for the LifeSafer devices in in Holbrook, N.Y., so his test results can be downloaded into a database, which is accessible via the Web. This lets his probation officer keep track of his process. LifeSafer’s interlock device monitors several criteria including the number of blood-alcohol tests administered during the month and how often the user passes, fails or ignores the tests. Seiber has never failed a test since his device was installed, he says.

Although the interlock doesn’t keep track of a driver’s mileage, the service manager or technician records this information at the monthly check-in. The information can help catch drivers who cheat by driving the car of a friend or relative, Warner said.

Since a single test failure can mean a parole or probation violation, every 60 days the devices are calibrated to make sure they are working properly, Warner said.

The program is important because most first offenders drive while intoxicated up to 600 times before they are caught, Richardson said. “By the time you get to a third offender, this person is driving intoxicated all the time,” he says. Millie Webb, of Franklin, Tenn., the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, says the interlock system can be effective. “We think that the ignition interlock is a valuable tool when it is used with repeat offenders,” she said. “There have been studies that show it is an effective deterrent.” Although the interlock device can be useful, there are one or two problems for the end users, aside from embarrassment. For example, if a user’s car needs service, it can be difficult for a mechanic to work on the car. Since the interlock can’t be turned off or differentiate between users, every time a car is started, a test is required. This means that to start the car the mechanic has to blow into the device. If the mechanic had a beer with lunch, the device will record a violation or warning.

Warner says he advises his clients to take their cars to mechanics who are also on the interlock program. “We have a group of guys that are also on the program that we can send people to,” he said. “You know that these people can be trusted to work on the car.”

In the end, officials and interlock makers say, the systems help people change their behavior. “You’ve got people getting it between the eyes six times a day for 12 months,” Richardson said. “They are getting into the car, having to pick up the device and blow into it. Eventually, it makes you accountable for your own behavior.”

c.2000 N.Y. Times News Service