By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — Every minute, someone in the United States is injured from an alcohol-related traffic crash. Too often that someone is in North Carolina and isn’t just injured, but killed. In fact, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the Tar Heel state ranks sixth in the nation in drunken driving deaths.
One way MADD and others are tackling this totally preventable problem is via planned legislation that would help prevent those who have been caught once for drunken driving from drinking and driving again.
“In one year, North Carolina has between 70,000 and 80,000 DWI arrests, and 35 to 40 percent of those are repeat offenders,” said Craig Lloyd, executive director of MADD NC. “If they had something on their car that prevented them from driving when they’ve been drinking, it would certainly save lives.”
That something that MADD is pushing for is an ignition interlock device about the size of a cell phone that is wired into the ignition of a vehicle and won’t allow the car to start until the user blows into it to prove he’s sober. Already required by North Carolina law for those convicted of DWI with a blood alcohol content of at least .15, the goal now is to lower the mandatory threshold to .08, the legal limit for driving. Some 14 states from Alaska to Arizona and New York to Oregon already require the “Blow Before You Go” technology at the .08 BAC. North Carolina is among 11 that mandates it at .15.
“The push to lower the limit makes sense because those caught driving at .08 BAC can get behind the wheel again just as easily as their more intoxicated counterparts. And the victims of drunken drivers are just as injured or just as dead no matter if the driver is barely legally impaired or has double the legal limit of alcohol in his bloodstream,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “Then it’s too late. We’ve got to focus on saving lives, and in this case that means helping drunk drivers avoid repeating their mistake.”
According to a 1997 study, an average drunk driver has driven while impaired 87 times before his first arrest. A separate study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 1999, showed 50 to 75 percent of convicted drunk drivers continue to drive even on a suspended license. And the national MADD Web site reports that “on any given day, your family shares the roadways with more than 2 million drunk drivers who have had three or more prior convictions.”
Lloyd said states that have implemented the use of ignition interlock at the .08 BAC level report “significant declines in injuries and deaths from drunken driving as well as DWI arrests.”
Legislation that would require the in-car Breathalyzers for all drivers convicted of DWI was filed by Rep. Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) in 2009 and passed out of the Committee on Science and Technology but didn’t make it to the House floor before the session ended.
Lloyd and others are working to make sure lawmakers are informed about the issue this session and have a chance to sign onto a new bill based on 2009’s H 1489. The law would require a convicted drunken driver, whose license is automatically revoked, to pay for the installation of an ignition interlock device on all vehicles that he drives before becoming eligible for a limited driving privilege. According to MADD, interlocks run $70 to $150 to install and some $60 to $80 per month for monitoring and calibration. In most states, interlock companies provide devices for those who can’t afford them.
The MADD Web site points out that offenders pay for the interlocks since they are the ones benefitting by being able to drive legally. They said the devices must meet National Highway Traffic Safety Administration standards and that they are improving as technology advances. For instance, the interlocks now feature a running retest which requires offenders to blow into the device at random intervals even after the vehicle has started to prevent someone who is intoxicated from having a sober friend blow for him so he can drive away. If the driver fails a retest, his car doesn’t simply shut down, which could cause an accident. Instead his horn will honk and lights flash to alert law enforcement.
To find out more about the interlock devices, log onto www.madd.org/drunk-driving/campaign/interlockfaq.html, or better yet, Lloyd says, come see for yourself.
Walk Like MADD, the organization’s signature fundraising event set for April 9 at North Carolina State University’s Centennial Campus in Raleigh will feature the technology among a host of other awareness efforts.
Lloyd also suggested that those across the state who are concerned about drunk driving join MADD (a free membership) and/or sign on to MADD’s Campaign to Elminate Drunk Driving, a pledge form for which is available via www.madd.org. He also asks that supporters let the North Carolina office know if they are willing to help push for the new interlock law once a bill is filed. He said MADD NC is planning a lobby day to meet with legislators on the issue and wants to coordinate efforts with volunteers who will agree to contact their lawmakers personally.
The goal of the Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving is to actually do so within 10 years via education, high visibility checkpoints, legislation and technology like the ignition interlock, Lloyd said.
“The Christian Action League urges members to let their lawmakers know they support the mandatory use of ignition interlocks for all those convicted of DWI,” the Rev. Creech said. “We’ll be on the lookout as this bill is filed and keep members informed of how they can help to get it passed.”