As of Jan. 1, Colorado has a new law intended to crack down more on drunken driving. Among other provisions, it lengthens driver's-license suspensions for certain offenders, increases the cost to reinstate a driver's license after a DUI conviction and requires certain offenders to use ignition interlock devices as a further safeguard against drunken driving.
The most visible change is the mandating of an ignition-interlock device for all motorists convicted of drunken driving, now including first-time offenders. The locks are required to be installed on every vehicle on which the convicted person's name appears on the registration, and on every other vehicle the person may drive during the period of restriction.
Some states have given convicted drunken drivers the option of using ignition interlocks, sometimes combined with the option of shortening their suspensions. (The organization Mothers Against Drunk Drivers says that in practice, optional interlocks rarely are installed because people simply ignore their license restrictions.) Other states have allowed, but not mandated, judges to require them. Colorado previously required them for repeat offenses.
Because such measures have not sufficiently reduced the numbers of repeat offenders, many states are moving in the same direction as Colorado. Ignition interlocks - which prevent a vehicle from starting unless the driver, who blows into the device, has no alcohol on his breath - are a good idea in many ways. They are not cheap, which can be a sobering shock. They are extremely inconvenient, which may or may not be much of a deterrent. They are a means of allowing people with DUI convictions to drive when they are sober, thus giving them a better chance of remaining gainfully employed. Mainly, though, they physically prevent people from driving while impaired. That goes right to the heart of the problem: driving while drunk.
The most important goal is to keep drunken drivers off the road, for reasons that should be obvious to all. Residents of the United States, and especially the rural West, depend heavily on driving. In many places, there is no public transportation. As satisfying as it might seem to yank the license of a first-time offender and say the accompanying loss of a way to get to work or the grocery store is fair punishment, it is not really the best use of the law. Preventing infractions always is preferable to punishing them, and mandated ignition interlocks do go a long way toward accomplishing that.
They are not the entire solution. As with any preventive measure, ways around this one can be found, but the fact that this program will not be 100 percent successful is not a reason to dismiss it. The alternatives are even less satisfactory.
Court-ordered substance-abuse counseling is valuable but not universally effective as a stand-alone solution. Revoking or suspending driver's licenses does not keep drivers off the road. Impounding vehicles over the long term is expensive and impractical, not to mention unfair to other owners. Jailing every offender is impossible. Realistic limitations are the logical way to go, and this one seems like a good plan.
Illinois enacted a similar law Jan. 1, and MADD national CEO Chuck Hurley had a fishing analogy to explain why he approved:"This law will change the catch-and-release system to one where people are at least caught and tagged," he said.
In this case, the tag is not an identity label, but a device that helps the driver avoid repeating the crime. That should be the goal of any DUI law: Keep the public safe from drunken drivers. If technology aids in the effort, so much for the better.