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Opinion

Editorial: Want to stop drunk drivers from reoffending? Lock them out

2014 ‘Walk Like MADD’ event in Huntington Beach
Families, friends and supporters of victims of drunk driving participate in the 9th annual Walk Like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) in Huntington Beach on Oct. 18, 2014.
(Los Angeles Times)

For more than five years now, the roads in Los Angeles County have been a little safer because most convicted drunk drivers have been prevented from starting up their cars again without first demonstrating that they are sober. A pilot program has required offenders to equip their vehicles with devices that detect alcohol on the driver’s breath and allow them to start only in its absence.

The problem with the ignition interlock program is that it is a pilot, applying only in L.A., Alameda, Sacramento and Tulare counties. Lawmakers re-upped the law last year, but it expires next summer and, besides, it is still limited to those four counties. A bill (SB 1046) to make the program permanent and take it statewide is pending, and it’s time to pass it.

Intrusive? Of course it’s intrusive, and properly so. The law would apply to drivers who have been convicted of being inebriated while steering a ton or more of steel and glass down public streets and, potentially, into the path of innocent drivers, passengers, pedestrians and bystanders. Having been caught driving drunk once, they ought to be prevented from doing it again altogether. Existing law calls for a six-month license suspension for a first-time offender. But people with suspended licenses tend to keep driving, whether drunk or sober. Besides, complete revocation of driving privileges can prevent a convicted drunk driver from going to work or school — or to treatment programs for alcoholism.

The trade-off is to let such a person keep driving for those six months — after breathing into alcohol-detection machinery that is linked to the ignition. Additional convictions would require the devices to remain in place longer.

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Some opponents worry that a law requiring such devices for anyone convicted of driving under the influence will make people think twice before ordering a glass of something intoxicating at a restaurant or bar if they plan to drive home afterward. Well, yes. That’s the point.

Others point to a bizarre variety of supposed holes in the law: The driver can get a sober friend to breathe into the tube, perhaps, or borrow a friend’s interlock-free car. Of course it is conceivable that an intoxicated person would conscript a friend into being an accessory, but that hardly renders the devices useless. In fact, Mothers Against Drunk Driving claims that the pilot program has prevented drunk would-be drivers from starting up their cars a million times.

Every criminal penalty carries elements of both punishment and prevention. Ignition interlock devices are designed to prevent repeat violations and protect innocent people from harm. There is no good reason to restrict the requirement to L.A. and a handful of other counties. SB 1046 has cleared the state Senate and deserves the Assembly’s support.

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