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Are ignition locks the answer to cutting drink-drive deaths?

Ireland is considering introducing them as a sentencing option in drink-driving convictions, a measure recommended this week in the US.

THE INTRODUCTION OF ignition ‘alcolocks’ is being considered in Ireland as a sentencing measure for drink-driving offenders.

It emerged this week that the US National Transportation Safety Board this week recommended this specific solution to help cut the number of accidents involving drunken drivers there.

In this release, the board says that every state in the USA should force convicted drink-drivers to fit their vehicles with ignition interlock devices. These locks – which are already law in 17 states for first-time drink-driving offenders – stop a car from being started if the driver’s breath tests positive for alcohol.

An average of 360 people a year die in the States by vehicles travelling in the wrong direction on highways. And in a startling finding, the board reported:

Approximately 60 per cent of wrong-way driving accidents involved alcohol. Note: In seven of the nine wrong-way driving crashes investigated by the NTSB, the wrong-way driver had a BAC (blood alcohol level) over 0.15.

This is how an ignition lock works: the device is attached to the dashboard and the driver must breathe into a handset to check alcohol density. In five seconds, the device detects whether their alcohol level is below the legal limit. If it isn’t, the device logs the level, warns the driver and starts an alarm such as flashing the lights on the vehicle or setting off the horn, until the ignition is turned off or a clean breath sample is provided:

(Pic: AP Photo/Katsumi Kasahara)

An exploration into how effective such locks are was carried out in California in 2004. In that report, it was noted that the device does appear to be a deterrent when installed on repeat DUI offenders. However, it also noted that the locks do not appear to be effective in stopping a first-time DUI offender, who is found with high blood alcohol levels, from offending a second time.

The European Commission’s Road Safety section says that “large scale quantitative research on alcohol ignition interlocks in use has shown that alcohol interlocks are 40 to 95 per cent more effective in preventing drink driving recidivism than traditional measures such as license withdrawal or fines”.

The EC notes that the locks are in use in the US and in Sweden and that trials have also begun in Belgium, Canada and Australia. “Experiments” are being carried out in Spain, Germany and Norway. However, it says that:

More widespread application will require a technical specification to be devised for alcohol interlocks as well as debate about their use, whether for rehabilitation or in normal use.

In the new Road Traffic Bill signed off by the Government this week here, some specific extra measures target drink-drivers, For example, blood samples can now be taken from an unconscious driver following a serious road traffic accident – and tested when they can give their consent. Non-technological tests – such as being able to walk a straight line, dilation of pupils (denoting drug use) – will also be allowed as evidence in court.

Oluf Stenlund of the Swedish Transport Agency spoke at the Road Safety Conference in Dublin Castle in April of this year about the alcohol ignition interlock programme running in his country. He said that 75,000 of these locks had been installed in commercial vehicles and that by the start of this year, all Swedish government cars were required to be fitted with them.

At that conference, the Government said it was considering introducing a range of new sentencing options for judges next year in relation to those banned from driving, including the installation of “an alcolock” in their car when they returned to the road.

When contacted by to see whether introducing “alcolocks” as a sentencing measure was on the way, the Department of Transport said that a group consisting of representatives from the Department, the RSA, the Department of Justice, the Gardaí and the Courts Service is still examining this and other sentencing options for road traffic offences. The Department stated:

The group is looking specifically at the possibility of expanding the range and combination of sentencing options available to the courts for driving offences.

These include a range of measures designed to deal specifically with re-offenders, ie those drivers most likely to offend again in terms of drink driving or other road traffic offences. The use of alcolocks is one of the measures being considered by the group, which is conducting further studies into the effectiveness, or otherwise, of alcolocks as a remedy.

The Department said that the group would report back in the first half of 2013, and that the Road Safety Authority is chairing the group.

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