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Ignition Interlocks for Stopping Drunk Driving May Cause Crashes

ignition interlocksA New York Times report found that ignition interlocks, which are installed in vehicles to prevent drunk driving, may also be linked to a number of crashes.

Ignition Interlocks and Distracted Driving

Ignition interlocks are essentially miniature breathalyzers that are about the size of a cellphone. When an ignition interlock is wired into a vehicle’s steering column, it can prevent the engine from starting unless the driver blows into it to demonstrate sobriety.

Since 2005, thirty-four states (including Illinois) have passed laws requiring motorists with drunk driving convictions to install the devices. As a result, nearly 350,000 people in the United States have ignition interlocks in their vehicles, and that number will likely continue to grow. Other states are already considering similar laws, and two US senators have already introduced legislation that would mandate that all new vehicles include ignition interlocks by 2024.

Road safety activists argue that ignition interlocks save lives, with one study finding that states requiring them for all convicted drunk drivers had 15 percent fewer alcohol-related car crash fatalities. But the New York Times found that a key feature of the devices could increase the risk of distracted driving, something that states have been clamping down on in other forms.

Even after vehicles equipped with ignition interlocks have been successfully started, motorists must complete “rolling retests” to continue driving. Rolling retests, which occur at random, require the driver to lift a hand off the wheel, pick up the ignition interlock, and blow hard into the mouthpiece for several seconds. If the motorist either does not do this or fails, the vehicle will begin flashing its headlights and honking its horn until the engine is turned off. This has the potential to seriously divert the driver’s attention from the road, something that may have played a key role in dozens of car crashes unearthed by the New York Times.

Dozens of Crashes, Some Fatal

Working with officials in North Carolina (one of the few states that makes most traffic crash records public), the Times found that ignition interlocks were involved in 58 crashes over a ten-year period. That number is likely an undercount, given that not every crash report is logged in the state’s database and many of the reports lacked searchable descriptions of the circumstances of the car accident.

Among the examples that involved rolling retests:

  • Two drivers rear-ended parked cars;
  • One driver hit a sheriff’s vehicle;
  • One veered into a field and struck a calf; and
  • One driver said he was reaching for his beeping ignition interlock when he missed a curve in the road, then “woke to someone saying he had been in an accident.”

The report also highlighted fatal accidents involving ignition interlocks. In November 2017, for example, a pickup truck struck and killed a woman backing out of her driveway in Arlington, TX. The truck’s driver had just passed a rolling retest but dropped his ignition interlock on the floor. As he was fumbling to pick it up, he hit the woman’s vehicle.

Those in favor of ignition interlocks argue that any distracting driving risks they may pose are far outweighed by the threat of drunk driving. And David Kelly, the executive director of the Coalition of Ignition Interlock Manufacturers, insists that the incidents uncovered by the New York Times reflect only a sliver of the crashes caused by other types of distractions, such as talking or texting on a cellphone, changing the radio station, or sipping a drink.

“You’re never, ever going to eliminate all of the distraction risk inside a vehicle,” said Kelly. “Every manufacturer tells customers they need to pull over for a retest and operate safely.”

Industry Has Fought Rolling Retest Laws

All interlock vendors do advise drivers to pull off the road to take retests, but the industry has largely fought to prevent the government from making this a legal requirement.

In 2006, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began revising its earlier guidelines for how ignition interlocks should work. A 2010 draft of these guidelines stated that the NHTSA “does not intend” for drivers to perform rolling retests and said they should be conducted while stopped on the side of the road.

Industry officials and others objected to the proposed regulation. In a letter to the NHTSA, the president of LifeSafer wrote that the “practical reality” of ignition interlocks demands that “99 percent” of retests take place while the motor vehicle is in motion. Meanwhile, Colorado state officials claimed that rolling retests would actually be safer in certain situations, such as in tunnels and in “congested environments with tight lanes and limited shoulders.”

Ultimately, when it published its final guidance in 2013, the NHTSA wrote that, while it was “very concerned about distracted driving,” it would not specify how retests should be conducted, arguing that it was “more appropriately a function for states and local jurisdictions.”

The Danger of Distracted Driving

Whether it is from ignition interlocks or cellphone use, there is no question that distracted driving – defined as any activity that takes a driver’s hands off the wheel or his or her eyes or mind off the road – is a serious danger in America today.

According to the NHTSA, distracted drivers killed 3,166 people nationwide in 2017. That risk is also very real in the Chicago area. Cook County Sheriff’s officers have recorded nearly 300 crashes from distracted driving in the past three years, with two of them ending in death. In fact, some experts allege that distracted driving can be as dangerous as drunk driving, if not more so, because a distracted driver could have a significantly longer delay in reaction time.

Let an Experienced Car Accident Lawyer Help You

Distracted driving can also be more difficult to prove, which could present serious obstacles if you are trying to pursue a personal injury claim, especially if the other driver’s insurance company is disputing liability.

To help overcome these obstacles, turn to the Chicago car accident attorneys at GWC Injury Lawyers LLC. For more than four decades, GWC has been helping wrongfully injured clients and their families get the justice they deserve. And with over $2 billion recovered in verdicts and judgments, we think our record speaks for itself.

To schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with of the premier Personal Injury and Workers’ Compensation law firms in Illinois, contact GWC today. You may call our office at (312) 464-1234 or click here to chat with a representative at any time.