Courts & Corrections

A Paradigm Shift on First-Time Drunk Drivers

Illinois is among a handful of states expanding their in-vehicle alcohol-sensor laws to include first-time DUI offenders.
by | January 2011

Alcohol interlocks have been around for decades. The devices connect to a vehicle’s starter or onboard computer to test a driver’s blood-alcohol content, and typically are mandated for those convicted of multiple driving-under-the-influence (DUI) offenses.

But because research indicates that interlocks can reduce impaired driving by approximately 64 percent, a growing number of states are implementing legislation that also gives first-time offenders the option to install the devices. One state in the vanguard is Illinois, a standout for its management techniques in ensuring the effort’s successful implementation.

Illinois’ alcohol interlock program began in 1994, with a focus on repeat offenders. The original pilot program became permanent in 1998, and in 2007, the Legislature passed a law to add first-time offenders to the list of those who can choose to use an interlock device. Illinois does not mandate that all first-time offenders use the device. But drivers who choose to install it are allowed to drive on a prohibited basis, rather than having their license suspended entirely.

When a driver is pulled over for a suspected DUI, he or she is offered the opportunity to take a Breathalyzer test. If the driver refuses, and in the end is convicted of drunk driving, a 12-month suspension is placed on the driver’s license. If the driver agrees to take the test and fails, a six-month suspension is ordered. If the driver wants to receive a probationary license that restricts when and where he or she can drive, the interlock can be installed -- at the participant’s expense. Though the suspension and time with the device is short, according to Susan McKinney, administrator of the secretary of state’s Breath Alcohol Ignition Interlock Device (BAIID) program, “research does show, to a certain extent, there is some success ... of people changing their behaviors even after the device is removed.”

The Illinois program is focused both on keeping drivers safe and changing the way the state responds to drunk drivers. The program, McKinney says, “created an opportunity for a change of thinking.” The state already had a repeat-offender law, but it was viewed predominantly as a punishment program. When Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) pushed the first-time offender law in the state, the program’s philosophy changed. According to McKinney, the new law is “an opportunity for someone who has a DUI to be able to drive, but also to keep them from driving drunk. If they mess up, we don’t punish them by taking away their permit, we make them leave [the device] on longer.”

Illinois’ success with the BAIID first-time offender program can be credited to not only the existing repeat-offender law, but also to the level of involvement of affected and interested parties, from the writing of the law through its implementation.

While the first-offender legislation was being drafted, the secretary of state’s legal counsel worked closely with legislators to ensure that the law that would eventually be passed could be implemented smoothly. Stakeholders -- including state police, MADD and alcohol ignition interlock vendors -- were brought to the table, since they’d be involved in helping the secretary of state’s office enforce the law.

Although Illinois’ multi-offender law was already in place, getting the first-offender program up and running was a challenge, according to McKinney. There was a “vast amount of work that was involved in getting the program operational,” she says. Duties related to implementing the new measure included everything from installing new technology and revising forms and letters, to training staff and informing the public of the new program. Staffing was an issue too. Before the new program, the secretary of state’s office had three staff members assigned to the BAIID program. Now there are approximately 16 employees on the team. All totaled, the state says, implementing the new program cost an estimated $1.24 million, paid for by the secretary of state, Illinois Office of Highway Safety and Illinois Department of Transportation.

The program may not be mandatory, but roughly one-third of first-time offenders in the state choose to participate. One reason many of the offenders opt not to install the interlock is cost: Participants must pay a monthly fee for monitoring, a fee for the restricted driving permit, and monthly fees and the cost of installation to the interlock vendor. The price tags of the devices themselves vary. But for a one-year program, the average cost can be close to $1,500. That keeps participation in the program low, says McKinney. “Some people would just rather take the chance and not pay that money.” Other states with first- or repeat-offender programs experience similarly low participation rates. In fact, according to a recent report by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, of the 1.4 million impaired drivers arrested annually, “Just 180,000 have an interlock device installed, and program participation is less than 20 percent in most jurisdictions.”

Even with Illinois’ detailed focus on the implementation of the program, the state still faces challenges. The legislation requires a judge to issue a court order for an interlock to be installed, which means the secretary of state’s office must rely on judges to offer the program. Legislation to change this -- allowing the secretary of state’s office to directly approach an offender about installing an interlock -- has been introduced. Without this change, it’s the job of McKinney and her colleagues to educate judges around the state about the program’s benefits -- although judges are required to offer the interlock program to offenders. “We’ve heard reports that judges aren’t offering the program like they’re supposed to,” McKinney says. Judges were skeptical of the first-offender program from the start, but the education the secretary of state’s office has provided was “absolutely” necessary to successful implementation, according to McKinney. “It’s just an ongoing process.” She continues to travel throughout the state to attend judicial conferences, local meetings and statewide events to get the message out about the benefits of offering interlocks.

Other states are working toward similar first-offender programs. McKinney’s advice? Implement the program in the manner that’s the most flexible and easy to tweak down the road, whether it’s through legislation, administrative code or an executive rule. “Bugs have to be worked out,” she says, “and you’re going to want to be able to do that easily.” In addition, McKinney recommends assigning a team in the state to be responsible for monitoring drivers in the program. “Don’t leave that up to the BAIID vendors; don’t leave that up to a third party. That should be your responsibility.”

There’s room for improvement, Mc-Kinney says, but the first-offender interlock initiative is an important move in the right direction. “This program is different in its thinking, and it’s causing a bit of change around here,” she says. “It’s been challenging, but it’s been good.”

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