Latest Car Option: Sobriety Locks : Drunk Drivers Could Face Devices in S.D., Vista Courts

Times Staff Writer

Municipal Court judges in San Diego and Vista are part of an experimental plan to order ignition-locking devices on the cars of drunk drivers.

The device--called a Safety Interlock--prevents the car from being started unless the driver can breathe soberly into a small mouthpiece.

Tony Maino, presiding judge of the North County Municipal Court, said he plans to order the devices installed as part of probation conditions in certain cases--such as first-time misdemeanor offenders, defendants between 18 and 21 years old, or offenders who are returned to court because they drop out of alcohol rehabilitation classes.

The devices would not take the place of jail time for serious offenders, Maino said.

Judges May Set Own Standards

"What we're doing now with drunk drivers isn't working," he said. "There is no more jail space, so it's not an option available to use. I hope this will reinforce for people the connection between driving and drinking and therefore break that connection."

Maino held a meeting with all North County Municipal Court judges Tuesday to discuss the plan, although each judge is free to set his or her own standards.

Most judges plan to wait until Aug. 28 when guidelines are drawn up, but Judge David Ryan has already ordered a 41-year-old man convicted of misdemeanor drunk driving to have a Safety Interlock installed on his car.

The devices are also being tested in Long Beach and in Alameda and Sonoma counties under a two-year program authorized by the state Office of Traffic Safety.

Cindy Roark, president of the San Diego chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, said MADD endorses the locking device plan, as long as it does not replace jail sentences.

"We feel it is another method of control, and we agree with that," Roark said. "We're very much in favor as long as the court is not losing jail time."

Maino said he wants to determine if an offender can be ordered to put a bumper sticker on his car and a warning on his driver's license so that police officers can tell that a locking device has been installed. Tampering with the device is a misdemeanor.

Roark said MADD, which has 1,800 members in San Diego County, particularly likes the idea of bumper stickers warning both police and the public that the driver has been convicted of drunk driving.

"One judge in Las Vegas has ordered drunk drivers to wear bright red vests, with the MADD logo, while picking up trash along freeways as part of their sentences," she said. "We understand some would rather stay in jail than wear them. Social control is very important."

Affordability Factor

Maino said that one issue yet to be resolved with the locking devices is cost. The devices cost an estimated $500 to lease for a year.

"Many of the defendants who come through this court are destitute or nearly destitute, so money will be a problem," Maino said. "One possibility might be using fine money."

The mouthpiece is attached to a measuring device that determines the presence of alcohol on the breath. Even if amounts far below the legal definition of intoxication are detected, the car will not start.

Maino estimated that upwards of 1,000 offenders a year might have the devices installed in North County alone.

"Some people might say it's Big Brother sitting in our cars with us," Maino said. "But it could be a very valuable tool in solving the problem of drunk driving."

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