Baby, You Can’t Drive Your Car

A judge’s favorite punishment for drunken drivers—ignition-interlock.

Ignition-interlock-device demonstration

Driving home from work after a long day at the courthouse, I was hit by a drunken driver. He destroyed my car and left me with bruises, a hairline fracture of the spine, and terrified about the thought of getting back on the road again. This man who wreaked havoc in my life received a fine, kept his driver’s license, and was sentenced to serve a few weekends in jail. This was in November 1984.

When I returned to my job as a California trial judge eight weeks later, I had a far different perspective on the crime of drunken driving. While the system that we had in place to deal with drunken drivers might have been efficient, with cases and punishments quickly dispatched, it did nothing to make our roads safer.

On May 28, 1987, I became the first judge in the state of California to order convicted drunken drivers to install ignition-interlock devices in their cars. The device is designed to stop people who have been drinking alcohol from starting their cars by requiring them first to blow into it. If there is alcohol on the driver’s breath, the device will not allow the ignition system to operate.

Ordering convicted drunken drivers to install these devices seems to me a matter of common sense and basic safety. But in fact, the matter proved far more complicated. The California courts may soon require judges to follow my lead on ignition-interlock sentencing. But it has taken more than 20 years and new legislation, which is on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk awaiting his signature. Why has it taken so long? And why do we need a law mandating such an obvious safety measure when judges could put it into effect themselves?

My own history suggests one unsettling answer. Early on, my fellow judges did not support my ignition-interlock sentences. Judges, no less than the rest of us, resist change. My colleagues who were assigned to calendars filled with drunken driving charges wanted to dispose of these cases quickly and quietly, obtaining guilty pleas as early in the process as possible. Completing the additional paperwork that went with ignition-interlock devices did not sit well with them.

Then came the totally unexpected opposition from the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. In their view, the ignition-interlock devices weren’t punitive enough; they preferred more jail time for drunken drivers. Incarceration, however, is a temporary remedy. As the recidivism numbers clearly demonstrate, convicted drunken drivers return to the roads in numbers too great to ignore.

And finally, in my own court, as I continued to order the installation of ignition-interlock systems, I started to worry about fairness, since the devices are expensive. (At the time, the installation fee was $150 and the lease fee was $50 per month; prices have gone up a bit.) Convicted drunken drivers are often low-income. I realized that by ordering them to use the devices, I was effectively raising their fines, so I lowered those to offset the fees. That proved unacceptable to Santa Clara County’s district attorney’s office, which took the position that judges could not lawfully reduce drunken-driving fines. The DA’s office took me to court and obtained an order directing me to stop. When I was thereafter rotated to another assignment, no judges were willing to order the devices for convicted drunken drivers. In January 1988, seven months after it started, my ignition-interlock sentencing program came to an end.

Today, almost all 50 states have laws permitting the imposition of ignition-interlock devices as sentencing alternatives for drunken drivers. The devices have a proven track record as an effective deterrent. The American Journal of Preventive Medicine notes that five out of six studies found that interlocks reduced the rate of recidivism for DWI charges. Participants in the interlock programs were 15 percent to 69 percent less likely than other offenders to be rearrested for drunken driving.

And yet, as a recent New York Times op-ed noted, while the effectiveness of the devices is clear, judges often fail to order the installations, even when the law requires it. Anecdotally, you can take your pick of explanations: too much paperwork; too much court time to review the results of the breath printouts; opposition to any other sentencing options other than jail; ignorance of the fact that this is a sentencing alternative. In any case, just as convicted drunken drivers must be made to use the devices, judges must be made to order them. The well-documented carnage on our highways and the tremendous economic impact wreaked upon us by drunken drivers are far too great to leave to judicial whim.

In California, the bill on the governor’s desk, which passed earlier this month, would require judges to order the installation of ignition-interlock devices in the vehicles of convicted first-time and repeat drunken drivers, as a pilot project in the counties of Los Angeles, Alameda, Sacramento, and Tulare. If Gov. Schwarzenegger signs the bill, the pilot program would start in July 2010 and become statewide law in 2016. This legislation is supported by a wide array of law enforcement agencies, including MADD, which has changed its stance on ignition-interlock sentencing.

Schwarzenegger should sign the bill. It will make our judges better. And it will make our streets safer. Finally.