Pending legislation in the New York State Senate and Assembly would load the already overworked county probation departments by saddling them with the burden of administering a complicated and unpopular program that is technology intensive. By now we have all heard of the disruptive ignition interlock device: The sobering, high tech, equipment that is installed in an automobile and requires a “clean breath” sample before engaging the starter. This was first made famous nationally in the movie “The Forty Year Old Virgin” and then, on the street, when Lindsay Lohan became the celebrity poster child for the device. This was followed by former Chicago Bears and Texas Longhorn running back Cedric Benson being ordered to install an ignition interlock device on his vehicle as a condition for bail.
Since November 2006 the technology has been endorsed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) as part of their Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving. And for good reason – the statistics point to the efficacy of the technology and consistently demonstrate that recidivism is significantly reduced, at least while the offender has the device installed. (See, Roth, Richard; Voas, Robert; and, Marques, Paul, Interlocks for first offenders effective? Traffic Injury Prevention 2007; 8(4):346-52)
New York State has had an ignition interlock program on the books for over twenty years — One of the first in the nation (California was first in 1986). In the beginning it was referred to as a “Pilot Program” and only involved seven counties spread across the state. Other counties were empowered to order the installation of the device on an ad hoc basis. They rarely did so because the technology was emerging and the devices were full of bugs. Its use was discretionary with the sentencing Judge. By 2007 the bugs, for the most part, were identified and worked out. The law in New York State was expanded to encompass all the counties and its use is now mandatory in certain cases of “Aggravated Driving While Intoxicated” (BAC .18 or greater) when probation is ordered and in cases where the offender has been convicted of an alcohol related crime within the past five years. Even so, the use of the ignition interlock in New York State is limited and the experience of the administrators (probation departments) is irregular.
Currently there is legislation pending to make the use of an ignition interlock mandatory following any DWI conviction including first time offenses. (See, Senate Bill S-27A, January 7, 2009 and Assembly Bill A-07196, March 25, 2009). This program, if it becomes law, will follow several other states which have “first offender” programs: Notably, New Mexico and Arizona for pioneering that model. There will certainly be a huge increase in the number of ignition interlocks used in New York.
The impact on the offender is tremendous. There is the obvious embarrassment of having to use the devise whenever you drive and the less obvious impact on family members who want to drive (they too will have to blow-suck-blow into the contraption). And the cost is significant. Installation, monthly service, and removal fees easily exceed a thousand dollars a year. The minimum required installation will be one year for the first offender (and it could be a lifetime addition to the vehicle for the serial offender).
The aspect of the legislation that is particularly troubling is the fact that the program is to be administered by the county probation departments – not the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. This has the potential for a real catastrophe in the execution of the program. In fact, I predict that New York will actually have 62 different programs (one for each county). This will drive up costs for the offenders, increase the required budgets in each county’s probation department, create an administrative nightmare and result in the inconsistent enforcement of the law across the state.
The service providers will surely have to get on a “list” for each county and the prices will vary considerably depending on where you reside in the state. (A quick call to the probation departments in Albany and Suffolk counties (both original “Pilot Program” jurisdictions will confirm this point.) The variability may be caused because the less populated counties present a disincentive to many service providers, a current problem. More likely, we will see an array of arbitrary rules that the county probation departments set for the vendors in doing business in that county. This will be very expensive for all involved. The problem is that the device is highly nuanced. Each manufacturer has devised their own subtle method for compliance with the broad federal specifications for device certification. Within those specifications there is ample opportunity for an administrator to prescribe custom requirements: time between random rolling retests; set-point to trigger a violation; the number of hours before the vehicle will “lock out,” to name a few.
Another reality is that the operation of the ignition interlock is inherently complicated. The device interfaces with, at least, the horn, lights, stereo and ignition of the automobile. The multitude of vehicles (1986 Oldsmobile, 2000 Mitsubishi and 2009 Ford Truck, for example) suggests innumerable potential problems with the wiring and maintenance of the interlock. Even if the manufacturers have ironed out the problems, I imagine it will require considerable resources to train and maintain personnel at the county level who will be able to sort out the far flung excuses about device malfunctions from true violations. On top of these issues, each interlock vendor has their own proprietary interface for downloading data securely to the probation department. I suppose the counties could simply say: This is how we want the data reported, but this approach will only exacerbate the lack of true competition among certified vendors of the device. In most cases the manipulation of the secure data will require significant technical expertise and the expense of fine tuning for each county will drive many of the best manufactures out of the state to a venue such as Massachusetts, where the Registry of Motor Vehicles mandates a single template for use throughout the state.
The lawmakers should shift the burden to administering the program to the Department of Motor Vehicles. This is fiscally responsible because the State would enjoy economies of scale in the area of technological know how. One central team would become familiar with all of the reported bugs. Competition would increase among service providers who would answer to a central office with well publicized requirements to enter the market as opposed to arbitrary and divergent protocols emanating from 62 separate administrators. There would be uniformity in the assessment of violations and the needless debate about false positives from mouthwash and stale bread would cease as the IT department for the State would rapidly gain a database of well known errors among products and quickly be prepared to identify real from imaginary violations. While I believe the law will increase the level of safety on the highways, I urge the lawmakers to shift the burden to administering the program to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Please let them know your opinion.
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