“As a nurse at a trauma center in the East Bay for 29-plus years, I see the results of impaired driving daily,” says Mary Klotzbach, whose son Matt was killed in 2001 after a drunk driver collided with their vehicle. “I never imagined our lives would be changed by a man drinking and driving on a suspended license.”
In the wake of Matt Klotzbach’s death, his mother founded the Northern California chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a policy and victim-support nonprofit that has become an educational and enforcement-focused force to reckon with. On Friday, Mary Klotzbach and MADD Regional Executive Director Natasha Thomas gathered at San Francisco Police Department headquarters to celebrate a legislative victory. On Jan. 1, 2019, Senate Bill 1046 kicked into effect, making California the 33rd state in the nation to expand its ignition interlock device (IID) program.
IIDs are not a new technology. Once installed in your vehicle, the hardware blocks you from starting your car until you blow into a device that rapidly tests your blood-alcohol concentration. They’re sensitive, too. Although the legal limit is 0.08 percent in 49 states — Utah just lowered it to 0.05, effective Dec. 30 — the car won’t start if the driver comes in higher than 0.04 percent. They test every 30 minutes or so while the car is running, and store data that can be subsequently downloaded at mandated equipment checkups.
State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), who led the charge for SB 1046, says that Californians have “a long history of loving their automobiles. They love to get behind the wheel. Those losses that we talk about — those thousand deaths every year, and 20,000 injuries — are preventable. You can take Lyft, you can take Uber, but because of that love of the car people want to get behind that wheel.”
The evidence of that “love” is sweeping. According to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation there are 310,971 drivers in California who have had three or more drunk driving convictions. Of those, 44,210 have five or more.
SB 1046 will mandate IIDs for all repeat offenders, and enable courts to assign them to first-time offenders even if they haven’t injured or killed someone. Up until now, this demographic has only suffered license suspensions.
The benefits of replacing suspended licenses with IIDs are numerous. In areas without the public transit infrastructure of San Francisco, IIDs enable people convicted of drunk driving to still go about their daily lives, dropping kids off at school, commuting to work, and running errands. And while suspended licenses are only punishable if you get caught driving, IIDs can, in theory, teach someone how not to drive drunk by forcing them to plan ahead and sober up before entering their vehicle, lest they get stranded.
They’re also fairly inexpensive. At full price, they cost less than $3 a day, or $60 to $80 per month. Installation is between $70 and $150. And SB 1046 has a clause that helps offset some of these costs for low-income participants, meaning that some people will only have to pay 10 percent of the fees required to operate the devices. The IID provider, such as LifeSafer, would pay the rest.
Friday’s announcement about the bill’s roll-out was timely; the holidays are notorious for drunk-driving incidents. According to California Highway Patrol San Francisco Captain Aristotle Wolfe, 230 arrests were made over the Christmas holiday for drunk driving in the Bay Area, a 50 percent increase over the same period last year. Statewide, DUI arrests are up 20 percent over last year.
Whether this is an increase in enforcement or actual drunk driving is unclear, of course. Nevertheless, “by the time we are involved a crime has been committed or a tragedy has occurred, and that’s what matters the most,” Wolfe says. “DUIs probably wouldn’t matter if people weren’t dying because of them — but they are.”
The IIDs aren’t perfect, of course. They’re hefty and resemble one of those massive car cellphones from the 1990s, complete with a long, coiled cable connecting it to the dashboard. Aesthetics aside, the biggest flaw is that there’s no way to be certain it’s the driver who’s blowing into the device. Technically, a passenger could do this for them, allowing the car to turn on. But as IIDs ask for confirmation regularly, a sober passenger has to be in the car to repeat the process — and if that’s the case, there’s less of a need for someone drunk to drive in the first place.
But perhaps the biggest question surrounding IIDs is why they’re not installed on every vehicle that rolls off the production line. According to data collected by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, IIDs stopped 220,792 drunk driving incidents in California from December 2006 to December 2017. If equitable distribution existed, those mind-boggling numbers — 20,000 Californians are injured and 1,000 killed in drunk-driving incidents each year — would undoubtedly drop. It’s yet another way that technology can hack our societal flaws, with little potential for negative outcomes. And it would quell that voice in the back of one’s mind as they leave a bar, keys in hand, wondering, “Did I drink too much to drive? Have I sobered up?”
With built-in IIDs, your car would be able to tell you.