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Why life with a breathalyzer blows for those caught drinking and driving

March 15, 2013

St. Patrick's Day always brings out the year's first wave of warnings about the dangers of drunk driving, appeals that have marginally reduced the army of Drinky McGreenBeers from grabbing their keys. About 1.2 million Americans were arrested for driving while under the influence in 2011, and drunk drivers cause roughly a third of the fatal accidents on U.S. roads every year.

If stern public service announcements and warnings that a DUI arrest can cost upwards of $10,000 do little to keep you from getting your drink on, consider the warnings of drivers convicted of DUIs who have to live with breathalyzers — and find their lives at the mercy of a balky piece of plastic.

All states have laws requiring some convicted drunk drivers to use ignition interlock devices, and in 14 states, you have to blow to drive after your first offense — and in some states, can be required even after an arrest that doesn't end in a DUI conviction. Such systems not only keep cars from starting if they sense alcohol, but can keep track of a driver's tests and be customized by authorities for different levels of warnings.

The devices don't just kick in at start-up: In most states, the systems force "rolling re-tests" — ensuring the driver didn't wait until the car was started before boozing by randomly alerting that the driver must blow again while on the road, up to four times in every hour of driving. And some require "arrival" checks, which force the driver to wait a minute or two after shutting the car off; if the driver simply walks away, the device records a violation.

On one Internet forum that's become a ersatz therapy group for those living with interlocks the litany of complaints runs deep, from balky devices and fear of false reports to being trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare that could take away a license, job or freedom. "This device is hell - I can't bear having it drag on any longer than absolutely necessary" is a typical starting point, and the posts are often filled with people having problems who need hard-won advice — like not leaving the interlock in your car on a cold night to avoid having it malfunction in the morning or drain the car's battery:

Okay, I'm nearly a third of the way through my 1 year mandatory IID for my slightest degree DUI. So far the thing has mostly worked okay with no false positives...But it's the scariest thing I've ever had to deal with. It aborts several times every morning before my car starts, causing me to have to go out early and test in the hopes that if it fails for some reason (this is the second device I've had--the first one I had for about 6 weeks and it finally failed completely and had to be replaced), I'll have enough time to catch the bus and get to work. I'm afraid to go out of town for any reason because I'm afraid that it won't start and I'll be stranded.

Basically it's a huge prison for me. I almost wish I could have just bargained for 30 days in jail with a work release, or absolutely no driving for 3 months, instead of this mechanical burden.

One mother posted to say the rolling retest caused her daughter to total her car:

On her way to counseling she was on the highway and the system required her to do a rolling test. Keep in mind to her left was a cement barrier and to her right major traffic. She has a huge fear of being in trouble so she does the test but the cord gets caught on her emergency brake, and dont forget you have to breath into he device for 6 seconds. In the process she got in an accident. Her car is history and her airbag did not deploy. She calls me screaming...........worst noise in the world. The police officer doesn't believe that they make them do rolling test so she shows him the paperwork. He declares the interlock system the cause of the accident.

(Other posters helpfully, if belatedly, noted that the driver should have been told she had a grace period of several minutes to pull over and conduct the test.)

Device errors appear common, due to bad calibration or over-sensitivity; there's lots of talk about not using alcohol-based mouthwashes, hair gels or even eating breads made with yeast, and having to test without the vehicle's heat on so that antifreeze or gasoline fumes don't register as a false positive — which can, if not contested, lead to having a license revoked or extending the time the interlock's required to be installed.

And drivers typically must pay for the devices, which can run $90 a month or more.

While the forum does have several posts from people scolding those who were caught driving drunk, there's no lack of contrition from those who want to make amends to society, and most realize the sympathy for a driver with a DUI wouldn't move the world's smallest violin. But:

yes no one should ever drink and drive...it is incredibly dangerous to your life and others...I understand the gravity, I really do. This situation itself has scared me half to death not because of the fines or the interlock or the classes or the damages to my car ...but the knowledge that i couldve killed someone or myself was tremendous enough to stop me from ever being in that position again

I realize some people dont scare so easily and may need to be monitored however those who have proven that they dont and have had only one offense...EVER....should not be getting abused.