Computer Device on Car Tests Breath : Judges Find New Weapon for War on Drunk Drivers

Times Staff Writer

Paul recalled having “six or seven, maybe more” thank-God-it’s-Friday beers with a buddy last January at a hangout in Cupertino. And when they finally drove off in Paul’s beat-up, brown 1980 Honda car, they were smashed.

“I was drunk. No doubt about it,” he recalled recently.

Paul had driven only a few blocks on busy Stevens Creek Boulevard when a wire short-circuited, sparking an engine fire. As he was putting out the blaze, he said, an unmarked Santa Clara County sheriff’s car pulled up and a deputy offered assistance.

Then, Paul remembered, she got a whiff of his breath, and asked, “Have you been drinking?”


“Yes,” was Paul’s honest reply.

A subsequent blood-alcohol test revealed that Paul had a level of .17%, clearly above California’s driving-under-the-influence legal standard of .10%.

It was not the first time the 33-year-old Paul (he asked for anonymity), still adjusting from a divorce, had consumed several beers after work. But it was the first time he was caught driving while intoxicated.

In March, Paul appeared before Santa Clara County Municipal Judge LaDoris Cordell, who gave him a choice: two days in jail or, for the next three years, use a new device that would not allow his car to be started unless he first blew sober breath into an ignition locking system.


Paul opted for the ignition device--the centerpiece of a California pilot program that, so far this year, has seen about 400 of the units meted out as part of the punishment package for inebriated drivers.

The computerized device, which looks like a small calculator, fits snugly under the dashboard of Paul’s car.

Some judges are so enthusiastic about the device--which is also being tested in other states, including Washington and Oregon--that they view it as a breakthrough toward reining in the drinking driver.

But other law enforcement officials said it is too early to tell. In any case, they said, a scheming drinking driver can circumvent it. And, to be sure, some defendants do not like it, charging that it is humiliating to use and smacks too much of “Big Brother.”

Marketed by 3 Companies

For her part, Cordell has been using the device in conjunction with a defendant’s first drunk-driving offense. Under state law, the first conviction allows a 48-hour minimum jail sentence, a minimum fine of $390, plus 90 days of restricted driving privileges (such as only commuting to work), and up to three years’ probation.

But mostly the locking system’s use has been confined to a second conviction, which can also include 48 hours to a year in jail.

Three companies--AutoSense Corp. of Hayward, Safety Interlock of Monterey and Guardian Interlock Systems of Denver--are marketing the ignition-interlock hardware, primarily in Alameda, Sonoma and San Diego counties.


A handful of judges in other areas of the state, such as in Los Angeles County, have used it too. But whether the device will be given an official statewide endorsement depends on an interim report by the state Office of Traffic Safety to the Legislature due by next July. A final report is due by Jan. 1, 1990.

Retail Price: $486

Karen Pearson, a spokeswoman for Guardian Technologies, said the firm is also starting to get orders from consumers (retail price tag: $486), “who are either concerned with their own drinking behavior, or concerned about someone else.”

“We expect a large voluntary market, such as the parents of teen-age kids,” said Ron Garren, president of Safety Interlock. The ignition device produced by Garren’s firm is the invention of a Carmel Valley man that caught the eye of Assemblyman Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who introduced legislation last year to create the pilot program.

Convicted drunk driver Paul, for example, uses the AutoSense unit. The theory behind it is similar to that of the Breathalyzer, which is used by the California Highway Patrol to measure the amount of alcohol in a driver’s body.

Demonstrating for a reporter, Paul plucked the device from under the dash and punched in a four-number code, activating the system. He then breathed into a mouthpiece on top of the device. A blue digital readout of his blood-alcohol level appeared on a display at the left of the steering wheel. The entire process can be completed in about a dozen seconds.

Can Be Circumvented

Some critics argue that the system can be circumvented by having someone else breathe into it. For this reason, the Guardian firm has developed a “breath code” involving a series of short and long breaths to activate the device. Guardian’s competitors said they are skeptical of such a system.


Under the pilot program, approved last year by the California Legislature and administered by the traffic safety office, the ignition will not work if the level is above .03% (this is about the equivalent of a glass of wine), far below the state legal standard.

The reason for the sharply lower blood-alcohol level, set by the traffic safety agency, is that a condition of probation for someone convicted of driving under the influence is no drinking and driving.

“It’s a pain, and sometimes it’s a little humiliating,” Paul said.

There are times, he said, when he hunkers down in the driver’s seat so that passers-by cannot watch him go through the drill.

‘Good Idea for Me’

Still, he added, “it was a good idea for me. A good idea for everyone (who drinks). I’d hate to get hit by a drunk driver.”

As for his children--a boy, 10, and a girl, 5--he declared that he was “very open” with them about his offense, explaining that it “was a good thing to show them that I paid the price.”

For Paul, part of that price included a $300 court fine, plus about $800 out-of-pocket expenses to cover the cost of using the ignition device and nine weeks of classroom work on problems connected with drinking and driving.

Not everyone thinks it is worth the price, however.

“It seems like someone is playing God with my car,” said a disgruntled, 20-year-old Monterey man, who pleaded guilty to drunk driving in September after, he said, he was found to have a .23% blood-alcohol level.

Produces Printouts

The basis of his objection was that the AutoSense unit, to which he also was assigned during his probation, provides a kind of drinking-driver profile in the form of a printout produced under the driver’s seat. The printout allows a judge to tell every time the convicted driver starts his car, every time the person passes or flunks the test and the blood-alcohol reading.

Judges such as Santa Clara County’s Cordell, the first to use the ignition-locking system, are counting on this technology to alter the drinking driver’s behavior patterns. A recent check of Paul’s printout, she said, tells her “he’s basically clean. He’s not a menace to anyone anymore.” Paul’s example, she added, is why she is so enthusiastic on the device.

“It will change behaviors and contribute toward eliminating the drinking-driver problem,” said Cordell, a former assistant dean of students at Stanford Law School. “It forces people to recognize how much they are drinking. Then it prohibits them from continuing their drinking-driving behavior.”

This is the crux of the problem that most concerns Cordell and other law enforcement officials: cutting down on repeat offenders. Of 347,286 arrests in California in 1986 for driving under the influence (101,813 in Los Angeles County), about 33% were repeat offenders, said Ray Peck, chief of research and development for the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Decline in Fatalities

If there is any positive news, Peck said, it is that in the last three years stiffer penalties may have contributed to a slight decline in California of driving fatalities in which alcohol was involved: 52.2% in 1984, 48.9% in 1985 and 48.7% in 1986.

At the national level, however, the news is not as encouraging. After a general decline nationally in the early 1980s, the number of traffic deaths blamed on drunk drivers rose markedly last year, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Transportation--declining by 11% from 1982 to 1985, but then rising by 7% in 1986.

Such statistics have led jurists, such as Santa Monica Municipal Judge Laurence Rubin, to conclude that the ignition locking device should be studied closely.

“Judges must be creative in their approach to the (drinking driver) problem and not automatically reject new approaches, including those based on new technology,” he said.

Said the DMV’s Peck, “if the ignition device is successful in half the (drinking-driver) cases, it would be far more effective than anything we have.”